Zoroastrianism is an ancient Iranian religion that divides into various phases starting with the legendary prophet Zarathushtra, whose non-Iranian name is Zoroaster, deriving from the Greek sources. The account below follows through from prehistoric religion to the Sassanian and Islamic eras.
2. The Problem of Legend Versus Fact
3. The Factor of Mysticism
4. Questions of Chronology, Homeland, and Vocation
5. The Factor of Ritualism
6. The Ethical Dualist
7. The Soul Journey
8. Becoming a Majority Movement or Religion
9. The Magi
10. Zoroastrianism of the Sassanian Era
11. Mani and Kirder
12. Sassanian Complexities
13. The Mazdakites
14. The Reign of Khusrau I
15. NeoMazdakites of the Islamic Era
16. Zoroastrianism in the Islamic Era
17. The Parsi Reformists
The Iranian prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) is celebrated as an ancient proponent of "ethical dualism." This entity affords a challenge to philosophical and historical investigation. He is very much a legendary figure. His date and homeland are subjects for debate, with a rather notorious scope for wide disagreement. The Avestan poetry in his name (known as Gathas) has yielded very different professional interpretations that can baffle the non-specialist. The divergences have exasperated even specialists. In the history of religions, the origins of Zoroastrianism are a particularly difficult problem to solve, and this requires emphasis.
The classical Greek sources are frequently considered a distraction by scholars. The name Zoroaster is derived from the Greek Zoroastres, a variant of the Iranian name Zarathushtra. Zoroastrians today prefer the Iranian rendition of the name, and this seems more authentic for serious use. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche used the Iranian name in the title of a well known book Also Sprach (Thus Spake) Zarathustra, a personal creation which has no relation whatever to the Iranian prophet.
The scholarly literature on Zoroastrianism is profuse, and much of it beyond the reach of most non-specialist investigators. When I probed this subject at Cambridge University Library during the 1980s, it was to find numerous contrasts in exegesis. For instance, the "shamanist" thesis of Professor H.S. Nyberg was repudiated by Professor W. B. Henning, who adhered to the traditional date for the prophet in the face of alleged ahistoricism. The French scholar Marijan Mole regarded Zarathushtra as the innovation of legend, contrary to the approach of Professor R. C. Zaehner and others. Professor Mary Boyce had opened up a completely new approach to the subject, and located the origins of Zoroastrianism in a much earlier phase of time than was generally envisaged.
Attempts by non-specialists to chart this complex field have been varied. One of the best known summaries was penned by Professor Mircea Eliade, in his History of Religious Ideas. Even that version was overtaken by changing trends and interpretations.
Let me here dwell briefly upon a conventional analysis found in a book on comparative religion published in the early 1960s, a book written by a Professor of Religion. The date of the Iranian prophet was here stated to be uncertain, though "increasing evidence supports a date for his ministry in the first half of the sixth century B.C." (1) That contention can be contradicted by other theories favouring earlier dates; the "increasing evidence" emerges as an arbitrary factor.
The same commentator stressed that many similarities exist between Hebrew prophecy and the teachings of Zarathushtra. (2) Without doubting some similarities, it is also valid to emphasise the Iranian nature of the latter event, which may have unplumbed dimensions. "He opposed the more barbaric practices of the nomadic peoples and advocated the pursuit of agriculture and the spread of settled life." (3) It is still not clear exactly who his opponents were, and to what extent his community resembled that of settled agriculturalists is a debateable issue. He "also opposed the cultic practices of his day, which involved bloody sacrifices and drunkenness, much as Amos and Hosea, a few centuries earlier in Palestine, had opposed the cult of Baal." (4) Others think that Zarathushtra existed centuries earlier than Amos and Hosea, though the underlying trend may have been similar in all instances.
"Very little is known with certainty about the actual position of Zoroaster on crucial theological teachings." (5) That point needs to be duly assimilated; his position is often taken for granted on the basis of later texts and interpretations. The present form of the Avesta, the Zoroastrian corpus of scripture, dates from the Sassanian dynasty, though containing much older ingredients that are frequently difficult to contextualise. That part of the Avesta known as Yasna or liturgy includes the Gathas, comprising seventeen "hymns" in the name of Zarathushtra. "The bulk of them [the Gathas] are either obscure or impossible to translate without ambiguity." (6)
The poetic Gathas are described as "the closest approximation to the actual message" of Zarathushtra. (7) The commentator then goes on to analyse the worldview attributed to the ancient prophet, here considered to be "fairly uncomplicated" and similar to the basic worldview of the Old Testament. The assessment is that of a cosmic struggle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu for control of the world, each of these deities having "a group of helpers akin to the angels and demons of late biblical thought." (8) The six amesha spentas are described as attributes of Ahura Mazda. Their evil counterparts are the daevas, who "probably are the other gods of the Iranian tribes" of Zarathushtra's time, and associated with Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), the Lord of Darkness and Lies.
Men were called upon to choose sides in the cosmic struggle between good and evil, "to affirm and improve the world, not to deny and escape it." (9) Some scholars are stated to hold the opinion amounting to Zarathushtra "thought that he might be able to rally men under Ahura Mazda's banner to build a kingdom of righteousness during his lifetime." (10) Yet opinions as to what he was trying to do have varied considerably, and a need for caution accordingly arises.
Professor Bradley stated that the Zoroastrian religion "would be little more than a museum piece were it not that Zoroastrian theology greatly influenced the Judaeo-Christian tradition, both directly and indirectly." (11) Some other scholars have taken the view that preoccupation with Judaeo-Christian themes has obscured the Iranian characteristics of the origins of Zoroastrianism. Christian interpretations of Zarathushtra's monotheism have been in dispute, amongst other matters. The dualism of the ancient prophet may have been more sophisticated than the reconstructions commonly found. The above-cited coverage is similar to many others in that it does not appear to envisage any mystical extensions to the "uncomplicated" worldview attributed to the Iranian prophet of antiquity.
A flexible attitude is surely required rather than a closed one. My suggestions in Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One (1995) were intended as an alternative to the rather rigid assumptions of many Western scholars that no mysticism is evident in the Zoroastrian religion, not even in the Sassanian phase, which is better known than earlier eras. A minority of scholars have deemed this "no mysticism" attitude to be an extreme approach, and a case has been made for mystical elements in the Sassanian phase that were formerly overlooked. As so much more is known about the Sassanian era than earlier periods in Zoroastrian history, it seems advisable to keep an open mind about those earlier periods also. So-called impossibilities can merely amount to a lack of data. However, I do not insist upon describing Zarathushtra as a mystic; I am equally prepared to describe him as a prophet or a reforming priest, and perhaps even as a proto-philosopher.
My earlier coverage included three emphases relevant to mention here:
1) The vocation of Zarathushtra was described in terms of being a prophet (according with the conventional religious view), though a small g gnostic orientation was also suggested, in contradistinction to capital G Gnosticism. This suggestion was provisional, though supported by the claim of Zarathushtra to be vidvah or a "knower." Some commentators take the attitude that the ethical content of the Gathas is more important than any nebulous mysticism, and I would be inclined to agree. However, if mysticism did exist in the prophet, then it is as well to make due allowances for the complete event. Recent translations of the Gathas have tended to weaken the ethical content, instead emphasising a ritual context. A "ritual mysticism" has also been proposed, a theory which has been resisted (see section 5 below).
2) Relying upon the Insler translation of the Gathas, and some other sources, I supported the view that the haoma cult was repudiated by the prophet. This is a vexed issue, as specialist scholars have argued both for and against the haoma ritual being sanctioned by the prophet. The fact is that some specialist arguments do permit an anti-haoma interpretation. Nothing is definitely proven either way. It is possible to argue one way or the other, though permutations are possible, e.g., the prophet may have repudiated haoma in a degenerate form of cult activity, and yet sponsored it in a purified variant.
3) The nature of the prophet's role as zaotar ("ritual priest") was repeatedly queried in view of the general uncertainties about factual details. The conventional view of Zarathushtra as a priest is often imposed with little or no flexibility. That priestly role is only vaguely defined in historical terms. The legend cannot be relied upon to impart precise contextual details. The uncertainties with regard to the date of Zarathushtra surely merit caution in assessing the nature of his role. I therefore adopted the attitude that a method of doubt is more scientific than one which uncritically assumes that the orthodox view is entirely correct. A major factor which influenced my presentation was that the prophet may have been born into a relatively classless, pastoral socioculture, in which case priestly roles could have been rather different to their profile in later Iranian class society.
Such issues are peripheral to the study of Zoroastrianism and Iranian socioculture as a whole. The formation of a priesthood, the different monarchical phases, the friction with Manichaeism, the Mazdakite phenomenon, and the Islamic phase of constriction, are major aspects of the historical and semi-historical record. There is much data of sociological relevance, and not merely in the field of religion. In what follows, I propose to investigate some of the more salient matters in the hope that this effort might be of use.
2. The Problem of Legend Versus Fact
A brief version of Zarathushtra's life in a popular encyclopaedia of mythology is perhaps the most well known reference in English. This supplies traditional details of the kind concerning which hard core historians are sceptical. The difficulty is one of separating legend from history. This version opted for the Parsi tradition that the prophet lived between 660 - 583 B.C., and the belief that the Avesta was written down at this period in its present form. Specialist scholars contradict the belief by concluding that the Avesta was not written down until the Sassanian era many centuries later. The difference is significant.
"His [Zarathushtra's] religious vocation was in many ways similar to that of Buddha." (12) That deduction may have been correct, who knows; the status of the Iranian prophet's contemplative disposition is a matter that has tended to be overlooked in general or even dismissed. The compilers of the entry under discussion here say that, at the age of twenty, Zarathushtra left his home in search of the man who was "most in love with rectitude and most given to feeding the poor." (13) He is said to have remained in silence for seven years in a cave situated on a mountain reminiscent of Sinai.
At the age of thirty, Zarathushtra is described as receiving various revelations from the "archangels" or amesha spentas. Vohu Manah, here described as the Spirit of Wisdom, "conferred on him ecstasy in the presence of Ahura Mazda." (14) The compilers of the entry locate that mystical experience in Azerbaijan, unlike some other scholars. Zarathushtra then began to wander and preach, travelling to the eastern sectors of Iran. During the twelfth year of his ministry he converted Vishtaspa, identified as the king of Balkh; the process of conversion is said to extend as far as the Hindus and Greeks. A late source cited here is the Shah-Nama (Book of Kings), an epic composed by Firdausi during the early Islamic era and borrowing from Sassanian literary collections whose accuracy is suspect.
The propagation of the new religion was at first pacifist, but in the last years of Zarathushtra's life, a holy war supposedly raged against the "infidel Turk, enemy of Vishtaspa," as a consequence of which the prophet was believed to have been killed in his seventy-seventh year. His essential aim is said to have been "striving after perfection by thought, word and deed." (15) One may credit the latter theme, but the matter of his death is more problematic. A specialist has affirmed: "The story of Zoroaster's death by violence thus proves quite worthless and late, the product of scholastic ponderings upon a misinterpreted passage of the 'national' epic." (16) This is a reference to Zoroastrian scholars of late Sassanian or early Islamic times.
The legend of Zarathushtra is supplied at length in Book VII of the Denkard (Acts of the Religion), a Pahlavi work whose final redaction dates to the tenth century A.D. (though drawing on older materials), at a time when Zoroastrian priests were on the defensive against the rule of Islam. This manual has been described in terms of being "primarily an apology for Mazdaism," meaning the religion of Mazda (i.e., Zoroastrianism). Professor Gignoux has described this text as "the product of a Persian milieu already largely islamized, and was thus intended both as a reply to Muslim attacks upon dualism and as a compendium of what could be saved of the scriptures" (P. Gignoux, "Denkard," 1994, Encyclopaedia Iranica online).
The search for fact abounds with pitfalls. Traditional assumptions do not necessarily amount to fact. A leading specialist in Iranian and Central Asian history notably stressed the difficulty involved in writing about the religion of pre-Islamic Central Asia. Professor Richard N. Frye lists the sources on the origins of Zoroastrianism: the Avesta, the Pahlavi books in Middle Persian, New Persian writings, and foreign accounts primarily in Greek and Syriac. Yet the materials amount to "various studies about Zoroaster," (17) there being no internal history of the faith. The Greek sources are not generally given much credence, being associated with exaggerations.
According to Professor Frye, the prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) initiated some reforms in the old Aryan religion in which he was a zaotar or priest. There is a complexity here. "Either he, or a proto-Zoroaster, changed the worship of daevas into rejection of them as false gods." (18) Other scholars have seen no reason to refer to a proto-Zoroaster, and the present writer will follow suit. Professor Frye discounted the claim of West Iran to be the prophet's homeland, on grounds that the language of the Avesta is East Iranian, and also that the place names mentioned in the Avesta are all from East Iran. "It would be reasonable to suppose that some, if not much, of his missionary activity was in Bactria, the most prosperous and populous region of the east." (19) The northern boundary in the general trend to agreement on this point appears to be Uzbekistan-Tajikistan, though a few scholars have proposed extensions in the far north.
Dates for Zarathushtra have been proposed as far apart as the sixth and fifteenth centuries B.C. (and even earlier). "The consensus is that he lived closer to 1000 B.C.E. than to the rise of the Achaemenian Empire because of the archaic nature of the Avestan language," (20) and also because of the indications that he lived in a pastoral society. It was a polytheistic age in which "the priests or shamans obviously had no written documents," (21) and in which an organised religion did not exist. We are heavily dependent upon the Avesta for information, but there are pronounced drawbacks here.
Only one of the twenty-one books of the Sassanian Avesta has survived in complete form, and that is the Videvdat (corrupted to Vendidad), the Law Against Demons, "which is primarily a collection of purification rules and punishments for breaking such rules." (22) The remainder of the extant Avesta amounts to "only fragments of the old parts, and these were rearranged probably several times in the past." (23) The corpus was written down in a new alphabet during the fifth or sixth century A.D.
The Gathas consist of seventeen "hymns," and these are "presumably the words of Zoroaster," (24) comprising the oldest part of the Avesta. Yet the Gathas "are only a small part of the original compositions of the prophet." (25) These and a few other texts are in Old Avestan, and were added to another group of texts known as the Younger Avesta, again very difficult to date.
The main compositions of the Younger Avesta are the Yashts, dedicated to old Indo-Iranian deities like Mithra. "The intense tone and philosophical contents of the Gathas are very different from the Yashts, which are more like the Rigveda of India." (26) The Yashts "were brought into the Zoroastrian religion after the death of the prophet." (27) Significantly, Professor Frye supports the "old" scholarly view of the haoma cult. "The cultic drink haoma, Indian soma, opposed by Zoroaster, founds its way into the rites of later Zoroastrianism." (28) Later legends insisted that the prophet regarded the haoma ceremony as a pious duty, along with tending the sacred fire; some modern scholars have supported this tradition in the "new" interpretation. There is scope for uncertainty as to the precise context.
3. The Factor of Mysticism
Christian monotheistic interpretations strongly coloured the subject of Zoroastrianism in the wake of Thomas Hyde of Oxford, who produced a book on Persian religion in 1700. Despite ideological glosses, European scholarship did make some important strides in this field during the nineteenth century. The Gathas were then discovered to be in a more ancient dialect than the rest of the Avesta. This advance dispelled the traditional priestly idea that Zarathushtra had authored later texts in the canon. However, one drawback was that Protestant Christian interpretation tended to assume a thorough knowledge of what had occurred in Zoroastrian history.
In a book published at Oxford in 1917, James Hope Moulton described Christianity as the crown of Zoroastrianism, and employed a New Testament reference to the magi as support for this contention. He extolled the Christian missionaries to India, and concluded that Zoroastrianism was "a religion which for all its high qualities had failed in its mission." (29)
Moulton's pro-missionary tract followed on the heels of an earlier work of his that was less evangelistic. This contribution provided a useful description of Zoroastrianism, but nevertheless reflected a rather inflexible interpretation moulded by the theological horizons of Christianity. "For all the profundity of Zoroaster's thinking... there was a singular absence of the mystical element about his teaching. A little more of it might perhaps have helped his religion to secure a much larger part in human history." (30) The basic assumption here was that mystical Christianity was superior to the non-mystical rival, which could therefore be the due subject of attention for proselytising missionaries.
In general, Moulton's belief concerning the absence of mysticism in Zarathushtra is still the rule in studies of Zoroastrianism, though without any specific Christian orientation. The well known ethical "rationality" of the Zoroastrian religion, denoting an orientation in "this worldly" attitudes, has frequently influenced assumptions that there never was any mysticism involved at any time. Yet if one looks closely, there are indications of an "other worldly" disposition in some cases, accompanying the more familiar orientation. It is unwise to generalise in these matters.
A basic factor to take into account is that the historical context of the Gathas (which bear the name of Zarathushtra) is not known, unlike the context of the Gospels or the Quran. The elusive chronology of Zarathushtra is obviously a crucial factor, but assessments have varied widely, depending on whether the gauge is taken to be linguistic affinities with the Rig Veda or the traditional date of circa 600 B.C. that is derived from the Pahlavi work Bundahishn. (31) Affinities with the Rig Veda, whatever ritual significations may be involved, do not rule out mystical elements of thought. A mystical element in Zarathushtra is perhaps more likely than in the outlook of some Christian missionaries who preached in India under auspices of the British Empire.
In 1930 it was suggested that the Gathas contain a hint of esoteric tendencies in the "allusion to 'secret things' to be taught by Ahura Mazda to the knower" (32) in Yasna 48.3. This allusion has been compared with emphases in the Upanishads that attest the restricted transmission of teachings to select disciples. Comparisons have been made with the RigVeda, though one can also legitimately bear in mind a text like the Chandogya Upanishad 3.11.5, an early Upanishad of obscure date. The case for Zarathushtra as an Iranian variant of a rishi, with a teaching reserved for dedicated disciples, is surely not a factor to be easily dismissed. Yet that theme has met with query because of the notion that Zarathushtra was a missionary eager to spread his dualistic teachings. However, there is no confirmation for this notion in the Gathas; indeed, the complex "Lament of the Cow" has prompted the specialist conclusion that the format and content would have been unintelligible to a general audience. The semantic complexity moves somewhat above the level of evangelism, which is the distracting creation of later religious imagination, both Zoroastrian and Christian. The potential of ancient sages and "knowers" remains elusive, though open to reasoned conjecture.
Recent ritualist interpretations of the Gathas have been considered in danger of undermining elements elusive to purely linguistic research (see section 5 below). Revelation was evidently achieved by inward "knowing," and undue emphasis upon religious ritual can obscure complexities. That situation evoked from my pen the provocative tag of small g gnostic in an attempt to negotiate the ritual preoccupations of some recent scholarly expounders.
In my book Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One (1995), I gave almost two hundred pages to a coverage of Zoroastrianism. Philosophically, one of the contentions I made is that ethical premises and viable mysticism are not opposed, and that the former are essential to the latter. In the basically ethical teaching of Zarathushtra, there are implicit mystical elements that probably meant much more to he and his disciples than is now apparent. I have credited the view that Zarathushtra repudiated a resort to drugs and stimulants (whether or not Yasna 48.10 refers to haoma). Such considerations attend my reflection that "the person who is not thoroughly ethical at the commencement of a gnostic endeavour is prone to becoming psychologically deformed" (Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, p. 244). The word gnostic with small g here denotes the subject of "spiritual knowledge," and is distinct from the capital G Gnosticism scholastically defined for the early Christian era.
The small g was intended to distinguish the subject (of gnosis) profiled from the doctrines involved in Christian era Gnosis (capital G), which took certain forms that may be considered extreme. Small g gnosis here indicates varieties of mystical experience occurring, and recurring, in Iranian minority repertories (meaning oral, behavioural, and experiential repertories). It does not designate extremist asceticism or libertinism such as is associated with the early Christian versions of Gnosis. Small g gnosis does not represent a doctrine but an experiential disposition (or range of dispositions). For that reason, it can also be applied to some Indian manifestations of spirituality, though the ascetic trappings in that sector are usually considered remote from the spirit of Zoroastrianism. However, even that conventional assumption tends to be contradicted by some data relating to the Sassanian era, data applying to both orthodox priests and dissidents.
Small g gnosticism is an innovative phrase, contrasting with Roman era Gnosis, which is customarily viewed in terms of a doctrine exhibiting theological peculiarities. The innovation lies outside the rather animated arguments applying to the subject of capital G Gnosticism. For instance, Professor R. C. Zaehner has been described as treating the words "Gnostic" and "Iranian" as being mutually exclusive. Whereas Professor G. Widengren favoured possibilities of an Iranian origin for Gnosticism. Professor J. Duchesne-Guillemin assessed the contribution of Widengren as pointing out traces in Iran of a religious attitude surviving from an Indo-Iranian past that was obscured by Zarathushtra's ethical dualism, but which was subsequently revived. (33)
One could reevaluate that perspective in terms of ethical dualism arising from a sober form of mystical apprehension which offset other forms of religion that later revived.
The expedient of suggesting a small g gnostic classification arose from a sense of wonderment at how many scholarly studies have compared the Gathic event with, e.g., Biblical prophets, African tribes, Greek mythical figures like Orpheus and Zalmoxis, rather than acknowledge any affinities with later Iranian mystics such as the Sufis and Shi'ite urafa. The urafa were married theologians who were "this-worldly" in addition to being other-worldly, and who did not always register their deepest beliefs in their compositions. My suggestions for Zarathushtra were not intended in terms of any similarity in doctrine to Islamic era events, but in terms of a similar psychological orientation via the intuitive faculties. The fact that a link has been recently proposed between Sassanian mysticism and early Sufism (34) does not lessen possibilities with regard to affinities in earlier times.
Small g gnosis is a generalised term, lacking specifics, applied by some exegetes to fairly numerous Shi'ite ulama of the Safavid and Qajar eras. The term does not always imply any radical lifestyle or even a radical doctrine. It rather signifies a psychological orientation. Small g gnosis does not specify any particular state of advancement, even though such a state might be implied. The description does, however, serve to distinguish an exponent from a purely orthodox mode of thought excluding mystical factors. Thus, if Zarathushtra can be credited with any mysticism at all, then he can be awarded the tag of gnostic in the more generous coverages of archaic spirituality.
If Zarathushtra was a reformer connected with the court of Vishtaspa, as the legend would have us believe, then one may reflect that later Iranians like Suhrawardi Maqtul, Qutub al-Din Shirazi, and Mir Damad, were likewise of court affiliation. This "in the world" aspect of Iranian mysticism may thus be of diachronic relevance, though it is always pertinent to ascertain as to what extent a mystic is "not of the world." The Sufi adage "Be in the world but not of the world" permitted variations which are philosophically and sociologically of interest.
In my vocabulary, small g gnostic describes a mystic who may be an ascetic or an example of the "be in the world but not of it" lifestyle. In that respect, the term is very generalised. However, there is a slightly more pointed connotation of an "illumination" experience. Zarathushtra is traditionally credited with such an experience; his vision of the sacred heptad is surely a legitimate point of reference in that respect. Yet he is commonly considered to have been a prophet with no mystical teaching, only a "rational" approach to salvation via an ethical doctrine of "good thoughts, good words, good deeds."
There appears to be an obvious discrepancy here. I have compared Zarathushtra with the much later ishraqi gnostic Azar Kaivan, a Zoroastrian of the Safavid era. The purpose of making such a parallel was to indicate similarities in psychological experiences, not in doctrines. Such experiences (whether called mystical or no) may cut across different lifestyles, e.g., ascetic and non-ascetic, and are not reducible to linguistic criteria.
Definitions of the word gnostic have varied. In relation to Sufi mysticism, the term is used very differently to idioms involved in early Christian Gnosis. Professor Annemarie Schimmel wrote:
"The mystic of the gnostic type strives for a deeper knowledge of God: he attempts to know the structure of His universe or to interpret the degree of His revelations - although no mystic could ever dare to 'know' His Essence." (35)
Some mystics were perhaps more daring than others; however, there is surely nothing heretical in suggesting that Zarathushtra was a mystic of the gnostic type in his invocations of Ahura Mazda. At any rate, one could easily interpret in this light Zarathushtra's statement in the Gathas that he is vidvah, a word which has been translated as "a knower, or sage." (36) The Gathas do not say exactly what such terms mean, or rather meant in archaic times. There must have been at least a few gnostic priests in the ancient world. Zarathushtra may fit the category of a reforming priest who was familiar with an archaic version of "soul journeying," and one which he revised.
"Aspects of shamanism abound in Zoroastrian lore: to Zarathushtra himself is attributed a visionary journey." (37) Perhaps one of his revelations involved the experience of a soul journey which exposed the inadequate methods of an artificially induced "soul journey" amongst his opponents, who may have resorted to trance and drugs in the pursuit of other-worldly experiences. The interposition of his "ethical dualism" can be viewed in this hypothetical context. One might credit that he was familiar with the same "subtle world" known to ishraqi philosophers of the Islamic era; that topic is subject to acute superstitions and abnormal behaviour in those seeking to induce premature experiences. If that non-material world has any real existence, then it would surely not be the prerogative of any particular religious group.
"Though a devoted husband and father, the prophet was able to endure long periods of solitude and contemplation." (38) The same Iranist scholar has described Zarathushtra's perception of Ahura Mazda as wisdom (Lord Wisdom) in terms of:
"from this single, overwhelming realization, preceded perhaps by that contemplation of Mind which has ever been intrinsic to Indo-Iranian religious thought, the prophet was enabled to behold all life in symmetry." (39)
The "fundamentalist" elements in the Gathas tend to deflect attention from the mystical context that some analysts have tried to reconstruct. My suggestion of a small g gnostic complexion was made in the recognition of contrasting textual interpretations from specialist scholars.
In Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, I suggested that Zarathushtra was a contemplative priest or "knower" who confronted an artificial soul journey amongst opposing priests, who may have represented the widespread tendency among occultists to force a way into the "subtle world," with proportionate hazards and deceptions occurring. The problem with "mysticism" is the psychological orientation underlying the professed altitude. The drawbacks are not always easy to define, especially in prehistoric vistas.
4. Questions of Chronology, Homeland, and Vocation
Zarathushtra is a figure notoriously difficult to locate in time. Many scholars of ancient history would deem the traditional legend of the prophet to be an unreliable source for facts. Some Iranist scholars have disregarded the legend, and credited only the autobiographical references in the Gathas, which are meagre. The Gathas are "hymns" generally considered to be the authentic compositions of Zarathushtra; they are semantically obscure in a number of respects.
In my own treatment (published in 1995), I attempted to do honour to the traditional legend without being an uncritical partisan of many beliefs accumulating about Zarathushtra (Zoroaster), e.g., that he founded a ritual priesthood which continued in a more or less unchanging manner. That priesthood conceivably crystallised in his wake over generations or centuries, and appears to have undergone pronounced amplifications of ritual and doctrine during the Sassanian era.
The uncertain chronology of the prophet moves between the traditional dateline of circa 600 B.C. and as much as a millenium earlier. Various locations in Central Asia have been suggested for his activity. In the theory of Professor Mary Boyce, Zarathushtra became associated (however loosely) with the early Sintashta settlement in Kazakhstan dating to the sixteenth century B.C. (see Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, 2.4). That location on the steppes, despite the presence of large houses, was practising a settled pastoralism, tending sheep and goats, cattle and horses, together with a little farming. The inhabitants appear to have comprised a basically classless society. "Priests" are elusive, and are unlikely to have functioned in the same way as priests of the Achaemenian and Sassanian eras.
A type of shamanic mysticism may have been nurtured by the proto-priestly vocations of that early (Sintashta) era. A scholar who assigned Zarathushtra to another area of Kazakhstan in the same archaic era has commented: "To compare him (Zarathushtra) with other shamans, and then adduce the differences to show he was not one, is a fruitless enterprise." (40)
The theory of Professor James Russell here posited a shamanic Zarathushtra in a pastoral society who reformed shamanistic practices under the impact of his revelatory experiences. This theory has some points to commend it. However, the shamanic attribution has not generally been in favour.
The version of Professor Mary Boyce does not employ the term shaman, but does refer to Zarathushtra in the context of "Iranian mystic," (41) which is not a typical idiom in the scholastic literature. Although this is still such a controversial field, it seems legitimate to discuss the Zoroastrian prophet in the context of Iranian mysticism. However, there are different ways of accenting such a discussion. The late Professor Henry Corbin is well known for numerous books relating to Iranian religion and mysticism. "One of the most significant contributions of Corbin to the Islamic culture of Iran was to establish a bridge between the pre-Islamic gnostic worldview of the Persians and Shi'ite spirituality and philosophy." (42) Yet there have been some strong disagreements with Corbin's method of exegesis, which has been considered metahistory by some critics.
Iranian savants like Professor S. H. Nasr have employed the term gnosis to designate a complex area of experience which often causes confusion. "One can say that Islamic esotericism or gnosis crystallised into the form of Sufism in the Sunni world while it poured into the whole structure of Shi'ism especially during its early period." (43) Until recent decades, the word gnosis was unpopular in Christian countries, where attendant ideas were moulded by the Church Fathers as distinct from the Nag Hammadi codices. The new popularity of that word involved some contemporary misconceptions. Further, the application of the word, in a different doctrinal context, to Islamic mystics, has sometimes caused annoyance to the more inflexible conceptions.
Zoroastrian legend depicts Zarathushtra as encountering the amesha spentas in an illumined vision involving great light. Ahura Mazda, the eternal uncreated God, is part of the sacred heptad in this vision. The Pahlavi text Wizidagiha-i Zadspram says that this vision occurred while the prophet was in a state of ritual purity. (44) Yet such a vision might have been more than sufficient to alter his orientation to ritual, which was evidently shared by his obscure opponents who are criticised in the Gathas.
The Avestan "hymns" exhibit a basic dualism between good and evil; there are major complexities underlying this dualism. Zarathushtra taught a moral choice for his followers, and is often said to have preached themes like linear time, resurrection of the dead, and heaven and hell. Yet such themes do not actually gain much detail in the Gathas; there is no systematic theology in the allusive poetry. Many of the archaic words used have been awarded different nuances by various translators. One instance is daena, a complex word formerly translated as "conscience." According to the Parsi scholar Cursetji Pavry, the Gathas teach that a man's conscience is the real determinant of his future destiny; man has the power of exercising freewill between the two principles of good and evil. "The wise" choose correctly by their good thoughts, words, and deeds; "the foolish" yield to evil thoughts, words, and deeds, bringing upon themselves misery "of long duration." (45)
Pavry rendered the meaning of Yasna 46.11 in the sense of: through their power the karapans and kavis have yoked man to evil deeds with the consequence of destroying his (future) life - but their own soul and their own conscience (daena) will cause them anguish when they come to the Chinvat Bridge, to be dwellers in the House of the Druj (Lie) for all eternity. (46) The obscure karapans and kavis were the opponents of Zarathushtra.
The apparent fundamentalism is open-ended, and the sense of "eternal damnation" has elsewhere been considered misleading. "All their lifetime" is apparently more accurate than "all eternity." (47)
Another statement in the Gathas also modifies the sense of eternal damnation which some translators have employed. Zarathushtra refers to to the fate of followers of the Lie in terms of "a long life of darkness, bad food, (and) lamentation" This reference comes from Yasna 31.20. (48) Professor Shaul Shaked has expressed doubt as to whether Zarathushtra should be attributed a doctrine of damnation, which appears in much later texts. (49) Caution about identifying the originating prophet with later Zoroastrian elements is in general advisable, it would seem.
The term daena has also been given alternative translations, including that of "Inner Self." (50) Another compelling rendition is "the good Vision." (51) The correct interpretation of this important term is thought to be intimately related to Indo-Iranian concepts of inner vision, and that topic should not be underestimated; it permits a far more mystical connotation than "conscience," although that faculty may also be implied. In later Zoroastrianism, the term daena also gained the connotation of "religion." Yet the original sense has been compared to the Vedic dhih or "vision" (daena comes from the same verbal root), and has been described in terms of a faculty "at once human and divine." (52)
The Chinvat Bridge is metaphorical and is not clearly described in the Gathas; however, it was much elaborated in later texts and is identified with the after-death state. The Chinvat Bridge was also believed to be cognisable during a "soul journey" while still living, a factor which lent the "Bridge of the Sorter" a visionary status. More recently, Professor Henry Corbin dwelt upon this theme in such terms as: "the Bridge of Chinvat links the summit that is in the center of the world to the cosmic mountain; and the ascent of the latter leads to the Garotman, to the 'Abode of the Hymns.' " (53)
Such symbolism has led some analysts to suspect that more was involved in these themes than a passage to the afterlife, though without denying the traditional view that the soul has to face the ordeal of the Chinvat Bridge three days after death, when heaven or hell result. The Garotman or House of Song is usually taken to mean heaven or paradise.
The Garotman, as highest degree of the celestial paradise, appeared in Corbin's portrayal of a gnostic dimension of existence, as culled from the varied sources of Neoplatonism, Mandaean texts, ishraqi teaching, Shaikhism, and the Gospel of Thomas. "A meeting of the Earth with the 'Abode of Hymns' " (54) was juxtaposed with reflections on the "same world in which the liberated soul, whether in momentary ecstasy or through the supreme ecstasy of death, meets its archetypal 'I,' its alter ego or celestial image." (55)
The commentary of Corbin has not always met with agreement, his usage of terminology being considered extravagant, and also influenced byJungian conceptions. Other disagreements attended the exegesis of Professor H.S. Nyberg, who contributed a controversial shamanistic version of Zarathushtra. The better known commentary of Professor Mircea Eliade states how Nyberg's interpretation of Gathic references implies that: "those who have been united to him (Zarathushtra) in ecstasy will cross the [Chinvat] bridge with ease." (56) One can here query the role of Zarathushtra as a psychopomp, though it may be relevant to bear in mind (via Eliade) that "the bridge, then, is not only the way for the dead; in addition - and we have frequently encountered it as such - it is the road of ecstatics." (57)
Nyberg construed that Zarathushtra and his disciples induced an ecstatic experience by means of ritual songs intoned in a sacred space (maga) in which mystical "communication between heaven and earth became possible." (58) The description of paradise as "house of song," i.e., abode of hymns (garo demana, garotman), was thought to justify this interpretation.
A more recent version of a shamanist Zarathushtra has urged a visionary element as the key to his doctrines. "It has become fashionable to regard the prophet as a philosopher above all, as if nothing but clear thinking, coupled with a poetic gift, could have led him to preach." (59) One might reflect that a shaman is only very approximately to be defined as a priest, and that the shamanic vocation is basically one of leaving home for solitude in which a vision occurs conferring a sense of new life. Zarathushtra's obscure "priesthood" may have been structured around solitude and visions first and foremost, with sacrificial rites an appendage for some practitioners.
The argument for Zarathushtra as a philosopher is likewise unconfirmed. Some commentators merely mean the Protestant Christian anti-ritualist trend of interpretation when they refer to the prophet as a philosopher. Whether Zarathushtra resembled any of the PreSocratic philosophers is conjectural. Entities like Empedocles had comparatively little affinity with modern philosophy, and in the later era, Plotinus was an indisputable mystic. Perhaps the main point here is that a mystical component does not preclude being a philosopher, this juxtaposition only being foreign to comparatively recent academic philosophy.
A well known commentator described Empedocles in terms of : "primarily belongs to the mystical tradition....his exuberant genius combined the temperament of a prophet with a really scientific turn of mind" (F. M. Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy, repr. Princeton University Press, 1991, p. 150).
The conventional denial of any mysticism in the Gathas seems myopic. A recent observation has been that: "Zoroaster's own encounters with Ahura Mazda - whom he addresses familiarly as a beloved friend - involve a vision of the beginning of the world which itself can certainly be classified as mystical." (60) The same scholar refers to "the Zoroastrian mystical path." (61)
The theme of the world's beginning is found in Yasna 30, a text which is thought to derive from "a direct religious experience." (62) To be more precise, the term xwafna has been translated as "vision." Yasna 30.3 thus includes the statement: "These are the two original Spirits who, as Twins, have been perceived through a vision." (63) This visionary experience would appear to be the crux of the event underlying the Gathas, the causative factor in Zarathushtra's projection of ethical dualism against cult ritualism and inferior ASC's (altered states of consciousness).
Yasna 30 has been described by specialists as a reinterpretation of the mythology of the primordial Twins, thought to be very archaic and extending back into the proto-Indo-European religion. In Zarathushtra the dualism is not absolute; the opposing forces of truth and falsehood (the Lie) appear to be emanations or creations of the supreme deity Ahura Mazda.
A modern conclusion is that Zarathushtra "uses abstractions to refer to states of mind as well as to divine entities," as in the case of the amesha spentas, and thus "one comprehends that for him the macrocosmic struggle is simultaneously occurring in the human microcosm." (64)
In Zoroastrian doctrine, the world was originally good; this emphasis has often been contrasted with the equation of matter with evil in most Gnostic (capital G) systems. Yet Angra Mainyu, the Evil Spirit, invaded the world, where evil exists in perverse human will; this concept does involve a dualism "between matter and spirit." (65)
The format of the Gathas has often puzzled unversed readers of translations. One commentator on Yasna 44 has observed that the statements in each verse are posed in the form of questions to Ahura Mazda, though "it is clear that to a large measure they [the questions] are rhetorical, for what Zarathushtra seeks is divine confirmation of his various doctrines." (66) The conventions of this poetic format would appear to have moulded the framework of expression (e.g., reminding a god of friendship, as is also found in the RigVeda).
"How am I to perfect my Vision (daena) ?" (67) This question is posed by Zarathushtra in Yasna 44.9. The inspired vision is one which "correctly shall see thee, O Mazda," (68) as is stated in the next verse. The aspirational flavour of many Gathic verses attests an intimate and direct relationship with Ahura Mazda, and some readers find it difficult to see how such moods were closely related to the ritual preoccupations attributed to the prophet by some scholars.
In Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, I gave favour to the controversial dateline proposed by the late Professor Mary Boyce in relation to the Iranian prophet. Expressed by that industrious scholar in variants ranging from c. 1200 B.C. to c. 1700 B.C., (69) I do not believe it unreasonable to have adopted the dateline of c. 1500 B.C. as a working hypothesis. Professor Boyce produced some diligent research in this difficult field, and the publication of her magnum opus was a milestone in Zoroastrian studies. The first volume (70) of that important contribution sent some conservative scholars reeling with shock at the high dateline proposed for Zarathushtra, which went well over the traditional date of c. 600 B.C. Boyce subsequently modified the dateline to c. 1200 B.C., (71) though the matter would appear to remain very open-ended. See further my web article The Zoroastrian Centuries (2008).
"One's assessment of Zarathushtra and the nature of his religious ideas will differ significantly, depending upon where and when one places his life." (72) This major factor can easily be overlooked. One argument used to support the traditional chronology is that the prophet was merely employing archaic forms of speech and imagery; priestly language tends to be archaic, resisting vernacular adaptation, thus reflecting an anachronistic cultural situation. The language of the Gathas has a very archaic structure. Thus, the Gathas may have been composed at a much earlier era than circa 600 B.C.
"According to tradition, he [Zarathushtra] was a zaotar, that is, a sacrificing priest and chanter." (73) Another source says: "In the Gathas he [Zarathushtra] refers to himself as a 'zaotar,' that is, a fully qualified priest.... In the younger Avesta he is spoken of by the general word for priest, 'athaurvan.' " (74) An advocate of the traditional dateline has stated: "Zarathushtra was probably trained to be a priest," though here believing that the subject was "a ritualist through and through." (75) The element of uncertainty in this version may have been prompted by the consideration that Zarathushtra was probably not a hereditary priest, instead choosing his vocation. "His name and those of his father and a sole recorded ancestor would hardly qualify as priestly names." (76)
The family of the prophet have been depicted as horsebreeders. The word aspa or horse is evident in the name of his father Pourushaspa and his ancestor Haecat.aspa. Yet that word also appears in the name of the king Vishtaspa, the prophet's legendary patron. Zarathushtra's own name bears the word for "camel" (ushtra), as does that of his disciple Frashaoshtra. The deduction has been that these are pastoral names, the animals concerned having long been domesticated on the steppes. The name Zarathushtra has been variously rendered as "herder of camels" and "he who possesses old camels." This may represent a "deprecatory name" rather than any occupation, according to one interpretation. (77)
The general pastoral situation can be rather differently interpreted. Favouring a shamanist milieu, one scholar has referred to the prophet's grazing animals and his sleek horses, while indicating that he lived in a felt-covered yurt or tent, at least during his travels. (78) A shamanistic zaotar who owned camels and who was at home in a tent en route to Vishtaspa's kingdom, is surely a figure distinct from ritual priests of later Zoroastrian times.
Certain other scholars have controversially denied Zarathushtra's authorship of the Gathas. Professor William Malandra has contested the theory that the occurrence of the prophet's own name in the Gathas means that he was not the author of these compositions. Malandra counters this assumption with the convincing argument that RigVedic variations between the first and third person afford a reinforcement of the conventional view that Zarathushtra did compose the Gathas. Traditional poetic conventions in the RigVeda have a counterpart in the Gathas. The same scholar reflects that the hymns in the RigVeda are connected with the religious ritual, and yet "most are not linked in any particular way to the ritual performance." Indeed, hymns like those of the rishi Vasishtha are personal expressions of the poet's relationship to the deity, with no ritual application being in evidence.
This significant ambivalence is discernible in the Gathas. The innovative Humbach translation stressed a context of sacrificial ritual for these Avestan texts, emphasising that Zarathushtra identifies himself as a zaotar (though also a vaedemna or "knower"), and that some Gathas refer to a ritual context. Malandra observes that there are problems with this ritualist exegesis, because "it is not at all obvious that some of the Gathas have any ritual context at all." The most well known example of this contradiction is the Lament of the Cow (Yasna 29). "We know next to nothing about what rituals Zarathushtra performed or about how he performed them." (79) The Yasna ritual appears to have developed long after Zarathushtra, and the associations of that sacerdotal exercise may comprise an encrumbance in terms of elucidating origins.
The present writer reflected that "his [Zarathushtra's] own role was probably more radical than the later meanings of zaotar would suggest" (Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, p. 242). I also expressed the more cautious comment "even perhaps that he was trained in their solemnization [of rituals] as a priest in his early days" (ibid., p. 293). This connotes the possibility that the prophet did not end his life as a ritual priest, even if he started his career as a ritualising priest or as a type of shamanic entity. Most scholars describe the subject as a priest, though one or two have called him a shaman. In his tangential career as a prophet, Zarathushtra surely cannot be considered a typical priest; that is reason enough to be careful in stipulating exactly what zaotar means for the Gathic era.
My earlier argument tended to the standpoint that Zarathushtra may have been a "shamanic" version of zaotar according to a non-hereditary calling in which he became a marked nonconformist rather than a routine sacerdotalist. Zaotar is usually taken to be an equivalent of the Vedic hotar. However, there is no proof that Zarathushtra had the same role as some or many Vedic poets and chanters. The brahman(a) officiant in India eventually became identified with a social class of priests, affording a general designation reminiscent of the blanket term athaurvan in the Avesta. There is no consistent word in either the Indian or Iranian sectors for the social class of priests sometimes theorised for the archaic period. The class system in Iran developed over centuries, and cannot be taken for granted in Zarathushtra's apparently pastoral locale. There was not necessarily any hereditary role of zaotar in his time, and such "priests" could have varied substantially in their characteristics of individual option for roles.
5. The Factor of Ritualism
The extent of Zarathushtra's ritualism is unknown. He is acknowledged to have promoted a reform of ritual practices, but there has been extensive disagreement about what that trend constituted. Some have urged that he did not oppose animal sacrifice in itself, but only the violent manner in which the daeva worshippers sacrificed animals. Zarathushtra abhorred the daevas, but a major problem is that the Gathas do not divulge the identity of these harmful gods. The Younger Avesta does proffer some identities, but is considered vague on this subject. Thus, the later texts are an inadequate guide, as their demonology "embraces mostly abstract entities (Pollution, Stupor, and the like), some monsters, and three figures who correspond to Vedic devas." (80)
The lastmentioned three demonised figures are named as Indra, Nanghaithya, and Saurwa. The second name is associated with the twin Nasatyas of Vedic lore, while the third has been identified with Sharva, a form of the god Rudra-Shiva. The last-named is evocative of a variety of sects living on the fringe of Vedic society, with some tendencies to extremism. Indra has more martial associations, and was strongly linked to the consumption of soma, the intoxicating substance known to the Iranians as haoma.
The pagan Iranian religion is imperfectly known. It is sometimes assumed that the prophet's opponents were worshippers of daevas but not the ahuras. That could be misleading. The term Ahura (Lord) apparently applied to three gods of the pagan Iranian pantheon, namely Ahura Mazda, Mithra, and Varuna. Some analysts have maintained that Zarathushtra deleted the elevation of Mithra and Varuna in an attitude of monotheism. A strong assumption has been that he favoured ritual worship of the Ahuras, the deities whom he considered to be beneficent. That is not impossible, but the allusive Gathas are no proof of this contention.
Further, the pronounced controversy over haoma involves the issue as to whether later Zoroastrian worship accurately reflects the activities of Zarathushtra. One Gathic verse condemns (Yasna 48.10) condemns "the urine of this drunkenness" in relation to the misrule of the karapans (thought to be a category of priest). Many scholars have believed this to be a reference to haoma. In support of that argument is the fact that soma was strongly associated with Vedic Indra, a deity demonised in the Vendidad as a daeva. Yet the central ritual of Zoroastrianism, the yasna, is basically a haoma sacrifice, and has been for many centuries.
The pro-haoma camp argue that the "proper conclusion" (81) to make is that the reference to mada or drunkenness must apply to something other than haoma. However, this leaves the concern for any investigator, under constraint to be "proper" in defence of religious conduct, that the truth might actually be obscured by the legitimising argument. That was why I took the anti-haoma stance in my earlier published treatment of Zoroastrianism, and following a cue in the translation by Professor Insler, whose version of the Gathas is not amenable to ritual elements. (82) Other recent translators have favoured ritual elements. (One might still dare to infer that haoma was repudiated because of attendant "shamanic" drug sponsorship by Zarathushtra's opponents, even if the haoma substance itself might have been relatively tame, such as ginseng). (83)
The ritual allusions in the Gathas have been differently accented. Professor Insler took the view that these allusions are metaphorical, contrasting with the version of Professor Humbach, who made a case for ritual texts. (84). This issue is rather fraught with disagreements. Professor Malandra has since applied a critique to the Humbach translation, affirming that the 1959 publication was "composed in a dense style that often does not move beyond the obscurity of the original Avestan."
Concerning the Avestan obscurity, Malandra cites the verdict of Professor Ilya Gershevitch, who in 1952 commented in a learned journal that "out of the 238 surviving Gathic stanzas scarcely less than 190 are partly or completely incomprehensible." Opinions vary as to the current state of the art, though Malandra is evidently not an optimist.
The same critic states that Humbach supplied a paraphrase of the Gathas intended to elucidate Zarathushtra's meaning. "Frequently astounding in its departure from what appears to be the surface meaning, the paraphrase is dominated by the idea that the prophet was concerned almost exclusively with ritual in his professional role as priest." ( W. W. Malandra, "Gathas. ii," Encyclopaedia Iranica online).
The same source observes that Professor Stanley Insler was a surpassing Vedacist, and one who contested "the extreme ritualistic interpretation given by Humbach." The rival version of the Gathas by Insler stressed "the moral and ethical character of Zoroaster's thought neglected in the ritualist approach" (ibid.).
Malandra adds that the 1991 translation by Humbach was "totally revised" and accordingly "gained immensely in clarity of expression." There are still reservations however, and "the philological discussions and notes almost completely ignore" the scholarly literature on cultural and religious history. Malandra is careful to add that two French translators of the Gathas exceeded Humbach in "the unrelenting insistence on the Gatha's overriding concern for ritual" (ibid.). The reference here is to J. Kellens and E. Pirart.
The ritual interpretation of Kellens and Pirart controversially suggested that the Gathas were composed by a group of ritual priests in whose circle Zarathushtra may merely have been an obscure individual. This has been considered a very European view, and the criticism lodged that "an entirely novel rendering of them [the Gathas] was thus achieved, with almost all doctrinal and ethical matter eliminated." (85) Others find the "metaphorical" exegesis more compelling, even if this is considered anachronistic by partisans of over-accentuated ritual allusions.
It is relevant to ascertain what Professor Helmut Humbach has to say about his version of the Gathas. He repudiates the extreme exegesis of his French rivals with regard to the eclipsed authorship of Zarathushtra. He credits that the prophet may have lived about 600 years before Xerxes, invoking the Greek account of Xanthos the Lydian. Humbach does also emphasise the factor of mysticism, though very much in terms of a "sacrificial mysticism." He contests the interpretation from other scholars that the Gathas amount to a "didactic poem." Humbach insists that "the sacrifical mysticism which dominates the first four Gathas is not easily accessible to readers of our time." (H. Humbach, "Gathas. i," Encyclopaedia Iranica online). That means most of the hymns under discussion.
Professor Humbach refers to "the enigmatic style of the majority of Gatha stanzas, which evidence a sacrificial mysticism and spiritual esoterism of which Yasna 29, the so-called 'Complaint of the Cow,' is particularly characteristic; this song must have been completely unintelligible to the public" (ibid.).
Humbach emphasises that in Yasna 33.6, Zarathushtra refers to himself as a zaotar, meaning "officiating priest." The same interpreter urges that the sixteen hymns in the first four Gathas were "composed to accompany official ceremonies of worship ordered and financed by Kavi Vishtaspa" (ibid.). Some readers find it easier to agree with Humbach that "when referring to the cattle-breeding herdsmen [vastryo.fshuyant], Zoroaster evidently includes himself; in the Younger Avesta, this expression denotes the lowest of the three social classes, but in the Gathas it does not at all qualify the prophet as being of low origin" (ibid.). Priests and commoners shared the vocation of cattle-breeding, therefore. How far this reflects a relatively classless society is still unclear.
The ritual allusions have been taken to mean that Zarathushtra meditated on rituals, which is reminiscent of Indian rishis. Ritual allusions, metaphorical or no, do not necessarily mean ritual texts. Poetic subtleties need not be reduced to a ritual context. The fact that an enigmatic text can be interpreted in such different ways amounts to a continuing variation of the "Politician or Witch Doctor ?" controversy which erupted in an earlier phase of Avestan studies. (86)
One specialist has commented on disadvantages of the ritualising versions which interpret the Gathas according to idioms in Vedic texts. "Such an approach, though it has its merits, may cause significant aspects of the text to be lost." (87) Professor Shaked points out that it is possible to read the Book of Genesis merely as a branch of ancient Mesopotamian literature, a method that was actually pursued by some scholars. A religious tradition often uses old terminology while reaching out towards a new content. "Novel ideas are frequently expressed by old phraseology that is made to adapt to a new communal experience." (88) Further, the possibility is urged that "the sanctioned ancient language of ritual may no longer have reflected the reality of the new Zarathushtrian religion." (89) An analogy is provided from Jewish religion. The synagogue liturgy still uses today the language of temple sacrifice that was suspended some 2,000 years ago.
Extreme positions in modern exegesis of Zoroastrianism are here described in terms of "regarding the Gathas as provincial Vedic texts" and in another direction, "reading the whole of later Zoroastrianism into them." (90)
The same scholar affirms with commendable honesty that "our understanding of the original teachings of Zarathushtra is quite imperfect." (91) We may conclude that Zarathushtra had to use an established tradition of poetry to communicate with some obscure religious audience. Long before the Upanishads, his sublimated ritualism may have retreated or advanced into experiential tangents and metaphorical devices.
If it is true that Zarathushtra basically experienced the Iranian heroic age from the perspective of "ordinary law-abiding people," (92) then one should not envisage a typical ritual priest uttering ritual hymns symptomatic of a professional sacerdotal class. The "pastoral millenarianism" which has been suggested is likely to have reacted against ritual interests to a considerable degree. Many modern Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians have believed that a dramatic reform did occur, and that view can be respected here.
6. The Ethical Dualist
The Iranian prophet Zarathushtra, at an uncertain period of time, may have been a ritual priest or bard who subsequently moved at a tangent to his earlier training. He may even have been an archaic precursor of the contemplative priests mentioned in Book VI of the Denkard, men who retired from sacerdotal activities in their later years. He may have enjoined new prayers as substitute rites of worship, and is thought to have sanctioned moderate animal sacrifice in the interests of community survival. Yet even the sacred prayers in the Old Avestan dialect (such as the Ahuna Vairya) are not to be taken for granted, as "there is doubt that they are Zarathushtra's compositions." (93)
The abovementioned Denkard (Book VI) supplies "an anecdote describing two aged mobadan [priests] who live in seclusion and simplicity - much as Zoroaster is alleged in Greek tradition to have lived - chanting the Avesta and eating only vegetable food." (94) This reference can be taken as indication of a minority of Sassanian priests who chose to end their days in contemplation, a tendency conceivably facilitated by rural environments. Though this trend is obscure, one can surmise that there would have been greater freedom attaching to the role of a contemplative priest in prehistoric times before the new priesthood imposed a sense of "this worldly" values that were amenable to hereditary roles.
In India, where asceticism was far more pronounced, priestly legislation is known to have restricted the contemplative lifestyle to the fading years of a man's life. In Iran, at the uncertain period when the Vendidad was compiled (long after Zarathushtra), the priestly legists were zealously insisting that "the married is far above the celibate, the man with children above him who has none, the man who eats meat above him who fasts." (95) There was apparently a need felt to assert orthodox superiority over what was perhaps a minority of celibate vegetarians.
It has been suggested that Zarathushtra became a priest at the age of fifteen, an age associated with maturity amongst the ancient Iranians, though training for that vocation probably began at about the age of seven. (96) There was thus ample time for him to achieve a reformist or "wisdom" perspective in his subsequent career. Professor Mary Boyce wrote of the Gathas: "He further describes himself there as a 'vaedemna' or 'one who knows,' an initiate possessed of divinely inspired wisdom." (97) The nature of that wisdom is a very open-ended issue.
According to the traditional Pahlavi legend, Zarathushtra commenced a wandering life in quest of truth at the age of twenty, gained his revelation at thirty, and began to influence the court of Vishtaspa some thirteen years later. This framework is sufficiently prolonged to permit of a radical break with his early sacerdotal conditioning. If he was a ritualist zaotar during his teens, he is likely to have been a very dissident zaotar by the age of forty. He evidently favoured an aspirational lore of the amesha spentas, the sacred heptad, a lore which has been differently interpreted. There is surely scope for both ethical and mystical tendencies in the general idea that:
"Caring for the other six creations, and bringing their Mainyus ["Spirits"] into his own self was part of the duty of the ashavan; and he should also strive earnestly to be fit for Mazda's Holy Spirit to dwell with him." (98)
The composer of the Gathas refers to himself as a manthran, a term which can be taken to mean one who composes sacred utterances. Yet it has been affirmed that his method of conveying words was very different to the traditional manthran, who "simply spoke his manthra and left it to work its effect." (99) Whereas the prophet exhorted his audience to listen and act, with the purpose of changing their situation. It seems that the less rational uses of manthra amounted to magical spells, (100) which was possibly one factor Zarathushtra was opposing.
The metaphorical nature of certain Gathic references is a matter to be taken into serious consideration. For instance, some scholars have proposed that the cow (gav) in Gathic references is not the pastoral animal but "an allegorical figure representing religious vision, the daena." (101) That theory derives support from references in the RigVeda, where the cow is employed as a metaphor for poetic vision; the problem is that the Gathas do not make any such explicit equation. Yet, as Professor William Malandra has stressed, it is possible that Zarathushtra understood the theme of the "Cow's Lament" (Yasna 29) in a spiritual context, as "an allegory for the vicissitudes suffered by the righteous man's soul in its quest for the 'good vision.' " (102)
The dialogue of that Gathic composition (Yasna 29) is so complex that uncertainty exists as to who is speaking in some verses - whether Zarathushtra or one of the amesha spentas. However, it is apparent that the ashavan (truth-possessor) was involved in a quest that continued on from the acquisition of moral virtues; the common translation of ashavan as "righteous man" would appear to be a limitation on meaning.
A spiritual quest for vision may have taken precedence in Zarathushtra's mind over a ritual profession at an early juncture in his career. This quest is conceivably related to his emphasis in a well known translation. "Give me this sign: the total transformation of this existence; so that, worshipping you and praising you, I attain to the greatest joy" (103) This manthra of Yasna 34.6 entails the conception of an imminent renewal or tranformation of existence, a theme that appears to have been radically altered by subsequent generations of priests. A theological reassessment on the part of posterity came to expect the fulfilment of religion at the end of time; a theory of world ages was developed in which successive saoshyants (benefactors or saviours) figured, leading to a final triumph of Ahura Mazda over the evil Angra Mainyu at the end of history. (104) Thus acute reservations about the finished doctrine of frasho-kereti ("renovation") are in order. Although such later doctrines may have had a point of origin in the Gathas, they are not what Zarathushtra actually taught.
Despite the subsequent embellishments to saoshyant lore,"he [Zarathushtra] did have a concept, though, of saviour figures, whom he called Saoshyants and among whom he numbers himself." (105) This theme lacks detail, though apparently it was these leaders who were believed to be the key to victory over the Lie. It is unlikely that Zarathushtra relied upon ritual for his impact, but upon his personal example and tuition, conceived as an intermediary with Ahura Mazda.
Professor Mircea Eliade suggested that "Zarathushtra's speculative effort may be compared with the meditations and discoveries of the sages depicted in the Upanishads." (106) Yet it may not have been speculation that is under discussion, but rather a set of intuitions which employed poetic idioms in an attempt to dramatise the contest in which the saoshyant confronted his opponents. Eliade himself stated that "the earliest Zoroastrianism, so imperfectly reflected by the gathas, seems to give first place to 'wisdom,' to inner 'illumination' in the presence of the sacrificial fire." (107)
The same comparativist scholar also affirmed that "the [Zoroastrian] cult is so spiritual that even the term 'sacrifice' (yasna) is equivalent, in the gathas, to the term 'thought.' " (108) Some other commentators give a literal rendition. However, Eliade tended to favour the interpretation which conferred an ecstatic experience, via the Avestan word maga, upon officiating priests of the yasna rites. The term maga, associated with Nyberg's shamanistic theory, has also figured strongly in other versions of the sacrificial ritual. Eliade relays that "the state of maga is obtained primarily by the haoma sacrifice, the sacrifice of the 'drink of immortality.' " (109) The word chishti (illumination) also figures in this interpretation of the ritual promoted by clerical Zoroastrianism.
One may counter that Zarathushtra's ethical dualism reacted to artificial and ritual ecstasy, and that he did not derive his inspiration from ceremonies like the haoma ritual. Even the legend says that he derived his revelation from the sacred heptad.
The history of the haoma rite is obscure. A verse (42.5) in a supplementary text (Yasna 42) to Yasna Haptanhaiti exalts Haoma. These Old Avestan texts have generally been considered later than the Gathas, and interpreted as evidence of a syncretism between the prophet's teaching and the religion he opposed (though some scholars have recently attributed the text Yasna Haptanhaiti to Zarathushtra). Condoning references in the Yashts to the haoma rite led to Eliade's description of Zarathushtran trends in terms of "strong resistance" being applied to the elevation of the pagan heritage. To the extent that "blood sacrifices were later definitively suppressed, and haoma disappeared as an intoxicating drink, being replaced by a mixture of plant juices, water, and milk." (110) This conveys a picture of ongoing reform. The identity of the original haoma plant is still uncertain, and some scholars give a different idea of what is supposed to have happened, being concerned to justify the usage of haoma, favouring ephedra in an unbroken tradition of Zoroastrian observance from the time of the prophet himself.
The Gathas were composed in Old Avestan, which unlike Younger Avestan and RigVedic, has no terms for social classes. Yet there is discernible a social order comprised by the family (khvaetu), settlement, and clan. It is very probable, though not certain, that kinship ties linked the members of these units. "The Old Avestan classless groupings of family and clan repeat themselves as the basic pattern for all later Inner Asian steppe-dwellers." (111) Whereas in Younger Avestan, three social classes are mentioned, namely the priest (athravan), the warrior/nobleman (rathaeshtar), and the herdsman/farmer (vastryo.fshuyant).
The deduction has accordingly been made that Zarathushtra's community was pastoral. There is no indication that they were nomadic. They might have lived in permanent villages rather than seasonal camps. Zarathushtra addressed both women and men; it is not certain whether this indicates an equal social footing or his own policy of equality. Professor Boyce linked this social environment with the vast area to the north of the Jaxartes river, an area known today as Kazakhstan, (112) and which includes steppe, desert, forest, and mountains.
A settlement on the Sintashta river in the south trans-Ural steppe, located in the province of Cheliabinsk, was favoured by Boyce in terms of similarities to the Gathic environment. This settlement, discovered in northern Kazakhstan, included large houses and supplies early evidence for the horse-drawn chariot on the steppes. The Sintashta settlement dates to about 1600 B.C. No marked social distinctions are in evidence here, though there must have been variations in wealth to permit the ownership of chariots. The inhabitants are thought to have been Iranians rather than Indoaryans, and were in the habit of slaughtering large numbers of animals from their flocks and herds on the occasion of burials.
The Gathic verses are "always allusive, with multiple layers of meaning." (113) They employ the word vastrya or "herdsman," which some scholars have given a metaphorical meaning, but which most interpret literally as a reference to the ordinary men, the farmers. An egalitarian message is not necessarily at odds with with allusive content. The foes of Zarathushtra are viewed as including the priests who served the warlords, encouraging the ranks of professional fighters and cattle-raiders.
A general idea has been that the prophet's ethical dualism opposed the Indo-Iranian concept of Indra as god of the young men (maryas) of the tribe. The votaries of Indra appear to have fostered violent and amoral attitudes. It has been surmised that human sacrifice was probably offered at some performances of the archaic yasna, the main act of worship undertaken by priests for the good of the world. (114)
The theory behind the yasna was that the "seven creations" would be purified and protected by the officiating priest in his state of ritual purity. Haoma was crushed in a stone mortar and represented the plant creation. The sacrificial beast represented the animal creation. The priest represented the human creation. The other four creations were also in evidence: earth was represented by the ground of the outdoor ritual enclosure, the sky was associated with the stone mortar in which the haoma was crushed, water was in the libation bowl, and fire was tended in a brazier. It is possible to believe that Zarathushtra was more thorough in caring for the diverse creations, and that he perceived the inadequacy of such rituals in the achievement of due ecology and social wellbeing.
Rather than being ritual texts, the Gathas "often give expression to his [Zarathushtra's] own inward dialogues with God." (115) They were composed in "a very old esoteric tradition of mantic poetry" which involved "layers of meaning and subtle allusions." The verses of Zarathushtra were apparently intended to be fully understood only by "those who had already attained a measure of spiritual experience and knowledge." (116) Much is implicit, much is veiled, and "there are numerous words whose sense is doubtful or quite unknown." (117) This assessment is surely not amenable to the simplified version of "ethical dualism" that has been in currency. The oral circulation of the Gathas for an uncertain number of centuries is a further consideration.
It has been thought that most priests were content to train only to a level which conferred upon them the function of a family priest. More committed cases are envisaged as "going from sage to sage in search of further enlightenment." (118) The exception to the rule should not be measured by the mediocre. "Instruction was perhaps given in techniques of attaining mystical experience, of entering directly into communion with the divine." (119) Perhaps Zarathushtra stopped performing rituals after such communion.
The Boyce reconstruction of context suggested that the Gathas were mainly composed during the early manhood of the archaic Iranian ethical dualist. Yet "he evidently continued to add fresh verses to them from time to time." (120) The period of revelation at the age of thirty is associated with "his great visions - visions which perhaps were the basis for his intellectual formulation of doctrine." (121) It is obvious that Mary Boyce allowed for a mystical dimension to some verses. "The verses which tell of his visions also convey his profoundest and most original teachings, thought and mystical experience being fused seemingly into one." (122)
The archaic Iranian concept of the ashavan (truth-possessor) is more complex than is often assumed. That category was expected to "entertain within himself" (123) the six Spirits (or Mainyus) who are best known by the term amesha spenta. Exactly how this was done is not really clear. The six Spirits dwelt with the transcendent Ahura Mazda as part of the sacred heptad linked to the "seven creations." They are not only part of God but have a separate existence which extends into mortals, or rather worthy mortals. Unworthy mortals lose this crucial connection with the heptad, which purifes from corruption. Modern explanations of the Zoroastrian heptad have varied, and are often speculative.
The tendency of some scholars has been to yoke the heptad to the yasna, though others have done the opposite. "It was presumably already established belief that at the yasna the priestly celebrant stood for the whole creation of man." (124) If that is correct, it could help to explain why Zarathushtra exhorted the ordinary men and women to purify themselves, ritual purity being in question as a means to salvation. The "ethical dualist" priority of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds was evidently not dependent upon ritual performances. Priests believed that they purified the world through the yasna; Zarathushtran ethics appear to contradict this sacerdotal perspective.
"For Zoroaster the good life went far beyond offering worship and sacrifice, desirable as those activities were, and embraced being ashavan in the full sense of that word." (125) That statement implies two different meanings of a key term. A Gathic verse is cited in this respect which informs that his followers were to accompany their "knowledge and sacrifices" with continued words and acts of good purpose. (126) Exactly what the word "sacrifices" means here is open to question. Even if the reader adopts the view that this is not a metaphorical reference, it is clear enough that Zarathushtra was moving at a tangent to the sacerdotal horizons of family priests and others.
A recent translation of Yasna 51.13 reads: "The Inner Self [daena] of the wicked man destroys for him the reality of the straight way; his soul shall surely vex him at the Chinvat Bridge." (127) The "straight way" need not be taken to mean the same thing as the Chinvat Bridge, even though it can be closely associated with that crossing in the after life, to which it leads. Zoroastrian tradition depicts the Bridge as separating heaven from hell, though Nyberg's interpretation allowed for a mystical extension. A drawback to the orthodox version of later times is that members of other religions were implied as being doomed to hell, only the faithful being fit for heaven. (128)
Zarathushtra seems to have been emphasising a straight way of aspirational endeavour, in which the accumulation of good thoughts, words, and actions was a crucial determinant of future existence. The nature of his eschatology is uncertain. The judgment of the soul depicted in the Pahlavi texts does not appear in the Gathas. In the Pahlavi version, Mithra is the judge, assisted by Sraosha and Rashnu, the last-mentioned holding the scales of justice. (129) No proof exists as to whether the prophet held this same belief, though one theory is that he probably regarded Mithra and Rashnu in this context, the presence of Sraosha being a later addition. (130) Sraosha is mentioned in the Gathas in another context, which has been decoded as "the Mainyu (Spirit) of hearkening to God, a concept which merges into spiritual obedience," (131) a quality to be developed by the ashavan.
Zarathushtra should be viewed as a liberal. He declared that "he would cross the Chinvat Bridge with all who followed his teachings, whether man or woman." (132) According to Professor Boyce, women had formerly been demoted in the eschatological scheme of pagan Iranian religion, being represented in the afterworld as "a houri-like creature promising sexual delights." (133)
Although the Gathas refer to three times of daily prayer, it is conventionally believed that Zarathushtra extended this observance to five times daily. The prayers are associated with the presence of some manifestation of fire, which "might be the hearth fire, or the ritual fire, or the sun by day and moon by night." (134) The hearth fire was kept perpetually burning for reasons of practical domestic necessity, and was the subject of regular offerings in gratitude to the Mainyu of fire. This was nothing to do with the yasna service, which was an outdoor event centering upon the blood sacrifice and preparation of haoma.
A significant statement of Professor Boyce is that "comprehension of Zoroaster's doctrines would have been at different levels even among his first followers, ranging from a full understanding attained by other mystics and thinkers to a simple acceptance by many of his hearers of what could be plainly formulated and put into practice in daily life." (135) In anthropographic terms, that amounts to a fracturing of the minority repertory, which extends to far more than the mere oral preservation of texts. A frequent assumption is that the preservation of oral materials means a continuation of original emphases; it should instead be obvious that the degree of understanding is crucial, especially in relation to intricate poetry like the Gathas. The experiential dimensions of such materials are not conveyed by oral repetition. Furthermore, the simple acceptance of rituals can obscure other forms of behaviour in a developing religion.
Because the "full understanding" of religious teachings so often becomes obscured by routine observances, one has to be critical of continuation theories. Many scholars formerly deduced that Zarathushtra's ritualism went no further than prayers in the presence of fire. These contenders believed that the yasna service was revived after his death by his followers, if in a modified form to the pagan version. A contrasting interpretation more recently became influential, assuming that there was no break in the continuing importance of the yasna. "By now the identification of allusions in the Gathas to animal sacrifice and the libation to water, together with the abundant and consistent testimony of actual Zoroastrian observance, appears to have decided this matter." (136) One can still raise objections, as the factors mentioned do not constitute any proof that Zarathushtra himself participated in the haoma ritual, even if he permitted a modified version of it amongst his priestly followers. Despite a number of impressive features in the interpretation of Professor Boyce, her support for traditional priestly attitudes and norms is less convincing to other assessors.
The Boyce version refers to the probability of "some minor changes" in the celebration of the yasna, though depending upon what substance had been used for haoma, the changes might have been far more dramatic. There is a logical degree of uncertainty allowable if the haoma plant was not ephedra in his environment. Such objections have been unfashionable in the recent atmosphere of ritual-oriented studies of Zoroastrianism. One may reflect that the authors of the later Hom Yasht attributed patronage of the haoma rite to the prophet; they did not necessarily possess "full understanding."
A recent development has been the attribution to Zarathushtra of the liturgy known as Yasna Haptanhaiti (Worship of the Seven Chapters), an Old Avestan text of devotional complexion. This is a brief text in prose, and contrasts strongly with the intricate verse of the Gathas. Until very recently, Yasna Haptanhaiti was unanimously considered to be a later text than the Gathas; the fact that generations of scholars have viewed this text as a later addition is not easily to be overlooked. Yasna Haptanhaiti is said to have been intended for use at a regular act of worship. The prophet's name does not occur in this devotional text, unlike the Gathas. The explanation proffered for this inconsistency is that "had it been composed after the death of the faith's revered founder, the likelihood is that he would in fact have been honoured in it by name." (137) Some do not find that argument convincing. Not long before, the same scholar wrote that Yasna Haptanhaiti "perhaps represents a collection of what old priests still remembered then of ancient manthras in the Gathic dialect." (138)
7. The Soul Journey
In the elusive pastoral milieu under discussion, possibly a major fixation was the phenomenon known as "soul journey" or "spirit journey." The later text known as Arda Viraz Namag, though extant in a Pahlavi version, exhibits a frame-story thought to be very old, though there are many accretions. This texts fits a genre of ancient oral literature widespread among different peoples, and involving a spirit journey into the other world. "It is very likely that this was cultivated among the Iranians long before Zoroaster lived, with mantically gifted individuals being believed to make such journeys into the underworld." (139) The frame-story of Arda Viraz includes an encounter with the figure of the Daena at the Chinvat Bridge, though the spirit of Viraz also ascends to paradise via the stars, the moon, and the sun.
"Aspects of shamanism abound in Zoroastrian lore: to Zarathushtra himself is attributed a visionary journey... and Arda Viraz takes a drug, called in Pahlavi mang, that is, the Avestan bangha-, hemp, to enable his soul to leave his body." (140)
In my view, a problem is that such references do not specify any difference between Zarathushtra's alleged soul journey and the resort of Arda Viraz to mang. It is surely relevant to allow for the ingredient of a "soul journey" in any context for Zarathushtra, whether or not the experience is considered to be specifically shamanistic. However, the assessor must here also convey a qualifying form of interpretation. Was the prophet's version of "soul journey" the same one in practice amongst the priests or shamans of his environment ? My conclusion answered in the negative, and implies a radical break on his part from existing means of inducing trances and visions. "The Gathas are best understood in the light of a reformed 'soul journey' independent of [visionary] ritual" (Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, 1995, p. 307). The reasoning behind my reflection was basically as follows:
The entire priesthood might have seemed "daevic" to Zarathushtra. He was probably confronted by fairly numerous soul journeys of a superficial type, and too frequently induced by drugs. A lore of descent to the underworld and ascension to paradise is easily degraded by cultic usage into a stereotyped pattern of inducing trances and hallucinations. Zarathushtra conceivably opposed the pagan version with a schema of aspirational striving featuring the lore of amesha spentas, linking to the "seven creations." The detested "urine of the stimulant" was possibly a close accompaniment to narcotic smoke of the presumed visionaries.
The issue of the "soul journey" is probably of more relevance than is generally admitted. Those commentators averse to a shamanist theory tend to ignore the matter completely, while proponents like Nyberg have not always approached the subject satisfactorily (and Prof. W. B. Henning was justified in criticising Prof. H. S. Nyberg for a theory of Zarathushtra resorting to hemp). The new theme of soul journey reform was bracketed by the present writer under the provisional label of "etic gnosticism." Some scholars have stressed that the detested mada in Yasna 48.10 may refer to a drug like hemp. The present writer attempted to enlarge upon that context instead of stressing Zarathushtra as a ritualist, a theme which may be misleading and assisted by hindsight.
8. Becoming a Majority Movement or Religion
Different statements have appeared in specialist works about the origins of the Zoroastrian sacred feasts. "A calendar of generally kept feasts was probably created fairly soon in the faith's history," (141) a suggestion which apparently envisages a date after the death of Zarathushtra. Yet it has also been affirmed that "the other strict obligation which Zoroaster laid on his followers was to celebrate annually seven high feasts." (142) The traditional ascription of these feasts to the prophet himself is not necessarily accurate, in the view of some scholars.
Six of these feasts were known as gahambars, while the No Ruz (associated with the spring equinox) was the seventh. The feasts have been described in terms of annexations of older pagan festivals. Details of their celebration date only from the Sassanian era, though the names exist in Younger Avestan forms. Many worthwhile customs adhered to them in Zoroastrian usage, for example, gifts to the poor, forgiving wrongs, healing enmities. Yet the feasts also became a feature of royal ostentation.
These feasts were undertaken in honour of the sacred heptad and the seven creations. By the Sassanian era,"through calendar changes, with consequent confusions, it had come about that all major festivals by now lasted officially for five days, and some even longer." (143) The sixth gahambar and the No Ruz feasts occurred during a festive period which lasted for over three weeks. "Naturally only the well-to-do and leisured could celebrate at such length, but the evidence is that at least the main holy day in each cycle was kept generally." (144)
It must have been very easy for opulent kings like the Sassanian Khusrau I (Anushirvan) to give food to the poor in ostentatious displays; the poor had lost any role as clansmen and were part of a rather inflexible class system. The situation of observance changed when the Zoroastrians became an oppressed minority during the Islamic era, losing their royal class of patrons. The limitations of mere display appear to have been recognised in the Persian Rivayat texts produced by the priests. (145) Extravagance became an issue in Parsi celebrations. A feast could obviously be abused by those who were not poor and who had too much wine available for consumption.
Yet further, it was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century that "women gradually began to take part also in the public life of the community, and to attend what had previously been wholly male functions, such as the gahambar feasts." (146) That was in Parsi India, where reformist measures gradually secured a degree of female equality; schools for girls did not exist until that time.
"Plainly all the great prophets would be startled, could they return to earth, by what succeeding generations have made of the religions ascribed to them; but Zoroaster would have perhaps the least cause." (147) That statement invites close attention. The reason given in this theory for the exception is that Zoroastrianism spread almost exclusively among Iranian peoples. However, there are "occasional allusions even to magic and the use of spells" (148) in the Yashts, hymns dated to the pre-Achaemenian centuries (i.e., before the sixth century B.C.). "A great gap is thus apparent in spiritual perceptions," (149) with "many, no doubt, simply yielding to the tide of a majority movement." (150) Exactly when the Zoroastrian activity became a majority movement is not clear.
The geographical drift of the Iranian tribes from the steppes into Iran is chronologically uncertain. A general view has tended to be that this drift occurred in the wake of the Indoaryans who moved into areas where urban (and proto-urban) centres had already declined. (151) A controversy arose concerning the suggested presence of Zoroastrianism, or proto-Zoroastrianism, in the Bronze Age culture excavated in Turkmenia and northern Afghanistan. This theory was launched by the Russian archaeologist Victor I. Sarianidi. "Based on a study of seal images found at Dashli, Sarianidi suggests that its population professed Zoroastrianism." (152) The Dashli culture was subsequently dated to 2100-1700 B.C. The claim of Sarianidi was dismissed by archaeologists and scholars in other countries.
According to the Kazakhstan theory of Professor Mary Boyce, Zoroastrianism was probably established in West Iran by the eighth century B.C., as adopted by some of the leading Median priests or magi. (153) Surprisingly little is reliably known about the famed magi of Achaemenian Iran, and it is in general monarchical history that receives the limelight. Even more obscure are the fourth class of artisans/labourers which formed in Iranian socioculture.
9. The Magi
Data concerning the Achaemenian era is basically derived from royal inscriptions and commentaries by foreigners (mainly Greeks) about Persian beliefs and practices. This data relates to the Persian empire created in the sixth century B.C. Persia covered the modern Iranian province of Fars. The Persians were part of a larger group of peoples identified as Iranian on the basis of linguistic characteristics. The earliest form of Persian is found in royal inscriptions, and is known as Old Persian. This is a West Iranian language, whereas Avestan has been defined as an East Iranian language. Closely related to the Persians were the Medes, further to the north, in the area of modern Hamadan (ancient Ecbatana). There are serious difficulties in reconstructing the history of Zoroastrianism during the Achaemenian era.
The magi are associated with the "wisest men" mentioned by Strabo, a learned contingent who taught Persian oral tradition to the children of the nobility, alongside training in military skills and hunting. (154) Herodotus describes the magi as a tribe of Median priests; they are sometimes said to have fallen into disfavour at the beginning of the reign of Darius, because of their plot to snatch rulership from this Achaemenian. There has been conjecture as to whether that development enabled Zoroastrians to gain a stronger foothold, but the whole period of Achaemenian rule is obscure for religious trends. That obscurity continues into the Parthian era, dividing the Achaemenian dynasty from the Sassanian.
The founder of the Achaemenian dynasty was Cyrus the Great, who lived in the sixth century B.C. It was Cyrus who inaugurated the Persian empire, a multiracial phenomenon extending over a wide territory, the precursor of the Roman empire centuries later. The Persians at the time of Cyrus had no writing system of their own, and the cuneiform inscriptions which they created have been described in terms of an artificial royal innovation, a script unique to Persia that was quite different to the Akkadian cuneiform of Mesopotamia.
The magi did not lose their influence, and became celebrated in the ancient world. The Greeks believed that Zarathushtra had been a magus, which is now considered a misattribution. The magi acquired a reputation for eclecticism and dream interpretation, though more disconcerting is their tendency to favour incestuous marriages.
The magi appear to have comprised a hereditary priestly class. Their conversion to Zoroastrianism may have been very gradual. The Vendidad has often been ascribed to them, being a text composed in flawed Avestan that covers religious law, rituals, and myth. Yet that text does not contain any reference to the magi or to West Iran, and some scholars have believed that it originated in East Iran. The Younger Avesta as a whole is "mostly the redaction of older materials by people who poorly understood the language of the original." (155) The language of the magi was not Avestan. They may have redacted the Avesta as early as the fifth century B.C., but the corrupted Avestan language is thought to have fallen into relative disuse in West Iran.
The language is very flawed in the Vendidad, which "must have been substantially composed in Arsacid times," (156) meaning the Parthian era that occurred after the Achaemenian. Many commentators have taken the view that the process of textual assimilation was attended by an extensive compromise of Zarathushtra's teaching. Numerous deities of the pagan religion are thought to have been accomodated in Zoroastrianism. The Younger Avesta frequently exhibits "the clumsy device of introducing non-Zarathushtrian materials as revelations made to Zarathushtra by Ahura Mazda." (157)
Some commentators have depicted the magi as distorters of Zoroastrianism, though there may have been some of them who gained deeper insights than other "wisest men" in their ranks. Such differences might be related to Zurvanism, if that is actually the correct word to use for that obscure phenomenon. Professor Nyberg regarded Zurvan, the "god of Time," as the deity of the Median magi, though there have been contrasting interpretations as to how the trend of "Zurvanism" arose in Zoroastrianism. (158) From what may have been a pre-Zoroastrian religion which developed in West Iran, there seem to have emerged different Zurvanite trends which have been described in such terms as fatalism and materialism. Much has been made of Babylonian influences relating to astrology.
Scholars have varied in stigmatising Zurvanism as a heresy or in viewing it as a philosophical tendency. Theologically, the beliefs about Zurvan affirmed a single principle to explain the universe, an eternal God transcending good and evil. This is often viewed as modifying the doctrine of Zarathushtra, though the Zurvanite myth has also been considered as a "fairly inoffensive variant of the Zoroastrian myth of creation," (159) an assessment which reduces the heretical dimensions. Zurvanism has also been described as a major sectarian movement which "remained an important heterodoxy within the state religion for many centuries." (160) Zurvanism appears to have gained widespread acceptance during the Sassanian era, though no traces survive after the tenth century A.D.
The religion of the magi received a blow during the Macedonian conquest, which ended the Achaemenian dynasty. The ruins of Persepolis are an evocative reminder of sociocultural transition. In 330 B.C., the army of Alexander the Great arrived victorious at this site of the Persian kings. They destroyed and plundered the wealthy royal centre, and the Persian empire was at an end. Many Zoroastrian (oral) texts are thought to have been lost at this juncture. Greek language and Greek ways became dominant. Yet the resulting Parthian dynasty, ruling Iran for several centuries with a Hellenised veneer, is believed to have permitted considerable local religious autonomy.
10. Zoroastrianism of the Sassanian Era
The Sassanian era commenced in the third century A.D., and saw the establishment of a highly centralised empire. The state religion was Zoroastrianism, and frequently tending to a complexion of intolerance, contrasting with Achaemenian trends. The transition from an oral to a written use of scripture occurred during this phase, yet the extant scriptural corpus is of less help than might be expected. Professor Shaked has commented on the problems involved in studying Zoroastrian literature. The notorious obscurity of the Gathas is underlined by a contention that the priestly tradition of exegesis "was faulty and did not always reflect the original meaning of the text." (161)
In contrast, the Younger Avestan texts are less daunting, "though they are not free from difficulties and textual corruptions." (162) A major consideration is that the extant Avesta represents "but a small portion of a much larger body of literature which once constituted the canon.... Almost the whole of the Avesta dealing with questions of doctrine, cosmology, cosmogony, eschatology, as well as the majority of the text which dealt with questions of law, is lost." (163)
The surviving texts are basically oriented to liturgical usage and ritual prescriptions; constant reliance upon them is one explanation for their survival. Some portions of the lost books are said to be "imperfectly reflected in brief summaries" appearing in the Pahlavi books, composed in Middle Persian and redacted during the Islamic era. Professor Shaked advises a circumspect use of the Pahlavi books, and reflects "it may thus be assumed that the Zoroastrian interpreters of a later period often read into the sacred text ideas which were not explicit in it, but belonged to their own period." (164)
The same redoubtable scholar has suggested the existence of esoteric trends in Sassanian Zoroastrianism. (165) Philosophically, this is a significant matter, though controversial amongst specialists. That theory tends to chart a distinction between popular and elite Zoroastrianism, the latter being associated with esoteric religious concepts. However, different accents can be given to this perspective.
Until the reign of Khusrau I, the religious climate in Sassanian Iran seems to have been complex, despite the establishment of a strict orthodoxy. There were heretics and semi-heretics who were apparently tolerated within Zoroastrianism (though not the Manichaeans, who were severely censured). The orthodox attitude was basically insular, restricting access to religious learning via oral procedures amongst the hereditary elite who preserved an archaic language. A minority of priests were perhaps more contemplative than others, and willing to extend practice into unfavoured areas like asceticism and vegetarianism when they gained retirement from ritual routines and militant policies.
The Pahlavi work Denkard (Book VI) briefly mentions a category of elderly priests who were vegetarian recluses. The description would imply that they were previously working priests, and thus one may believe there was a counterpart to the brahman renunciate who retired from the world in his fading years. In general however, Sassanian priests appear to have elaborated the religious rituals. The performance of supererogatory rites was believed to accumulate treasure in heaven. This situation has evoked the comment that "such treasure could more readily be accumulated by the rich than by the poor." (166) The approval of wealth that hallmarked the this-worldly attitude of Zoroastrianism was exploited by the Sassanian priesthood, who "tended to press the laity to have rites performed to excess." (167) Another of the less inspiring features of the Sassanian era was that of "an inquisition set up by the state to discourage apostasy amongst Zoroastrians." (168)
A few Zoroastrian writings of late Sassanian times exhibit "a streak of asceticism." This has been ascribed by some scholars to non-Zoroastrian influences, whether Gnostic, Christian, or Indian. (169) Others might wonder if that streak was actually more basic to minority tendencies within Zoroastrianism.
11. Mani and Kirder
Far more strongly associated with asceticism is Manichaeism, shunned as a rival religion by both Christians and Zoroastrians. The founder Mani was regarded by his followers as a successor to the activities of Zarathushtra, Buddha, and Christ. He was born in Babylonia (circa 216 A.D.) near the Sassanian city of Ctesiphon. Al-Nadim says that his parents were both of Arsacid blood, implying a noble background; his paternal forbears are said to have come from Hamadan, and this could denote an Iranian origin. His father Pattak (Patik) was reputedly an Arsacid nobleman, but Mani did not claim affiliation to the Iranian upper class.
Pattak joined a sect of "baptists" identified as a branch of the Elchasaites. These people were Jewish Christians, described by Professor Widengren as "a Gnostic movement little known with an enigmatic founder," though some other scholars merely say that the sect might have been influenced by Gnosticism. This grouping has been described as anti-Pauline Jewish Christians who observed the Sabbath; they apparently possessed their own version of the Gospels, deeming the orthodox Christian texts to contain false passages. Mani was reared in this sect, and may have derived from them his practice of vegetarianism.
In 1969, the Greek document now known as the Cologne Mani Codex, was discovered in Egypt. This relevant manuscript has thrown some light on Mani's relationship with the Babylonian Elchasaites. That text dates to the fourth/fifth century A.D., and is perhaps a translation from Syriac; it comprises a partial biography (or rather hagiography) of Mani compiled by early Manichaeans. Legendary embellishments are evident, though it is reasonably clear that Mani seceded from the Elchasaite sect, disagreeing with some teachings, including prescribed ablutions, which he considered to create a distracting preoccupation with purifying the body as distinct from the soul. He was maltreated and expelled from that community.
At the reputed age of twenty-four, Mani moved to the capital city of Ctesiphon, apparently preaching in public. Much of his career is enveloped in legend. He composed diverse works, and was also an artist or book illustrator. Hie dictated letters to a group of scribes, and these communications were sent far and wide. Mani taught that real purity can only be achieved through Gnosis, involving knowledge of the separation of Light from Darkness. His universalist version of "dualism" was associated by the Elchasaites with a Pauline tactic of preaching to the gentiles. Mani proclaimed himself as a Light-bringer; the exact nature of his personal claims is difficult to ascertain.
The Christian sources on Manichaeism are often polemical and unreliable. The Acta Archelai describes Mani's activity in "a hate-filled and distorted form," according to Widengren. Mani was unconvincingly described by Christian opponents as a slave who gained freedom. In another direction, a question exists as to how far the Manichaean sources in Coptic and other languages can be relied upon for accuracy, though one should be more sympathetic towards these texts than has been the case amongst hostile theologians in modern times.
Accompanied by his father and two other disciples, Mani based himself at Ctesiphon, where he appears to have established his first community. He sent missionaries to Eastern Iran and to the Roman lands, and made a journey by boat to north-west India, where he encountered Hindu and Buddhist teachings. His universalist attitude was compatible with Buddhism, Christianity, and his (possibly ancestral) Zoroastrianism. Yet his teaching was more specifically Gnostic.
Mani is sometimes criticised for having adjusted his teaching to local religious terminology, as in the case of his deference to Zoroastrianism; other analysts feel that his syncretism was more impressive than the insular religious attitudes he frequently encountered. Though acknowledging the validity of earlier religions, he believed that their teachings had become distorted by followers. His own "Religion of Light" was apparently intended by him as a world religion to counteract the military divisions imposed by monarchs and prelates.
Shortly after his return from India, Mani gained an audience with the Sassanian monarch Shapur I (rgd 241/2-272). This was apparently at a date very early in Shapur's reign. The monarch was lenient towards him, and allowed Mani and his followers to preach their doctrines freely in the empire. Two brothers of the king reputedly became followers of Mani. Iran remained the major scene of his activity; the extent of his own missionary activity is not clear. He sent disciples as far as Syria and Egypt, and maintained contact with East Iran via other missionaries. The story (via Alexander of Lycopolis) that he accompanied Shapur in royal campaigns against the Romans has been considered unreliable, though giving body to the Roman concept of Mani as a Persian enemy.
We may believe that, for some years, the pacifist Mani accomplished court service under Shapur; the reason for this is thought to have been his close knowledge of medicine (and astrology). It has been suggested (without proof) that Shapur thought of using Mani's liberal teaching as a national ideology to resolve religious differences, without any reliance upon the conservative class of magi (meaning the Zoroastrian priests). Mani was not able to convert Shapur to his teaching, but did gain the monarch's favour, involving an attendant freedom of movement.
The Sassanian empire included such diverse religious factions as Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism, in addition to Zoroastrianism. At that time the matter of a state religion was in flux. According to Professor Widengren, both Mani and the prelate Kirder had the ambition of creating a state church in the Sassanian empire. Kirder was a Zoroastrian priest of increasing influence, and he reputedly accompanied Shapur on the Roman campaigns. Kirder emerges as a major rival of Mani, expressing an insular policy that sought to exclude and eliminate religions other than Zoroastrianism.
Shapur prevented the magi from persecuting other religions in his empire. The royal policy has been deemed tolerant and syncretistic, perhaps reflecting the counsel of Mani. However, at political levels, the struggle against the Romans was a major preoccupation of Shapur; in 260 A.D., his army defeated and captured the emperor Valerian, who died in captivity.
Kirder has been discerned by specialist scholars as a prime agitator against Mani's influence, and evidently gained favour with influential nobles at the court of a subsequent monarch, namely Vahram (Bahram) I, whose regnal dates are variously given as 273-6 and 274-7. The new monarch was won over by Kirder's conservative faction, in contrast to his predecessor Ohrmazd I, whose brief reign ended in 273. The priestly class became inquisitorial, and Mani was banished from court at Beth Lapat (meaning the Iranian city of Jundishapur, known to Muslim writers as Belabad). He subsequently returned from Ctesiphon, intending to defend himself against priestly accusations, but Kirder and his associates were resentful. Mani was ordered to appear before the monarch, who reproached and humiliated him. Mani' s aversion to war and hunting was apparently a factor contributing to the displeasure of Vahram.
The king gave orders for Mani to be arrested, fettered, and imprisoned. He spent some weeks in jail, chained to a guard, though he received visits from followers. He reputedly welcomed his death, which is obscure. Manichaean hagiology referred to his end in terms of a "crucifixion," and both the Acta Archelai and the Chronology of Al-Biruni say that Mani was executed at royal command. Modern scholarship has considered this to be a misinterpretation; he died in jail, but was not executed. However, "it was surely the intention of the king to sentence Mani to capital punishment and not to mere imprisonment." See W. Sundermann, "Mani" (2009), Encyclopaedia Iranica online. The prison episode became portrayed in the Manichaean literature as a "passion," associated with the death of Jesus. The corpse of Mani was mutilated, and his severed head is reported to have been displayed over a city gate. The year of his death has been variously given as 274 or 277. He was apparently about sixty years old.
Kirder's faction of conservative clergy had triumphed. Kirder was keen to declare in one of his inscriptions that Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Manichaeans, and others had been dealt blows in the Sassanian realm. The political picture evoked here is not attractive. The high priest Kirder was at the height of his power during the fairly lengthy reign of Vahram II. Violent persecution befell the unfortunate Manichaeans, many of whom fled to Central Asia. About ten years after Mani's death, his successor Sisin (Sisinus) was executed.
An ecclesiastical hierarchy seems to have quickly developed amongst the surviving Manichaeans, sponsoring a high moral code; their doctrine appears to have gained embellishments, and probably simplifications. They retained a base in Babylonia, though their growing missionary religion extended as far as China in later times. The Manichaean religion eventually became extinct. Surviving texts in a variety of antique Eastern languages have been the subject of specialist analysis. (170)
There is no need to assume that all the magi of West Iran thought and acted like the proscribing Kirder. According to Professor Shaked, the Sassanian priests "did not constitute a homogenous body." While some took employment at the court, others preferred independence and were apparently liable to criticise those who did not. The independents are here described as rural priests, and the suggestion is made that they "fostered a more spiritual approach to religious matters." (171)
12. Sassanian Complexities
Usage of the term raz ("secret") in the Pahlavi books has given rise to the view that esoteric elements existed in priestly doctrines of the Sassanian era. "Speculation about the possible nature of those esoteric doctrines may lead us to think of an allegorical, as opposed to a literal, understanding of the ritual prescriptions and of the mythical stories." (172) It may be that the priests (or some of them) conceived of "a deep religious experience, in some cases reserved for those few persons who were capable of reaching to a higher type of religious awareness than common believers." (173)
The profession of an elitist attitude does not guarantee proficiency in the esoteric. One problem posed by the Sassanian era is that "the expressions of elitist attitudes are associated in the texts with the tendency to bar most members of the Zoroastrian community from access to an independent study of the scriptures." (174) This ban applied particularly to the zand, a word which signifies the technique of scriptural interpretation in the vernacular. The same scholar says that the prohibition was justified by the fear of dissidents spreading heresy. Yet both the priests and the court are liable to have nurtured a vested interest in this policy of preventing access to religious learning. "The kings, for their own part, had their special interest in limiting access to the scriptures." (175)
The Manichaeans were identified by the priests as zandig, a term conveying the stigma of "twisters of zand," and which apparently referred to heretical exegesis of the Avesta. It is often stated that Zoroastrianism never accepted the equation of the moral dualism (i.e., good versus evil) with the Gnostic dichotomy between the spiritual and material. Yet Manichaean thought did share "certain essential points with the Zoroastrian tradition." (176) A significant feature of this convergence was the belief that "certain aspects of the human person are essentially identical with the divine world, as well as the idea that the aim of human existence is to try and make this identity a reality." (177)
This was obviously a form of mysticism. It may have been the factor of convergence which prompted the stigma of zandig. At the heart of Zoroastrianism was the attempt "to try and become divine," in which respect "the aim of a Gnostic religion and Zoroastrianism are similar." (178) Yet differences in the mode of expression and practice are also relevant.
Among the Sassanian priests, there appear to have been several schools of thought on abstruse matters. Mani is said to have borrowed their conception of multiple souls, meaning the spiritual entities in man such as the soul (ruwan), the vital soul (jan), and pre-existent soul (frawahr). (179) Yet perhaps the most salient detail is the priority given to visions of the hereafter in the Pahlavi literature, not restricted to the Arda Viraz Namag, which is merely the best known example. "Zoroaster himself had been one of the models for this attainment of vision, coupled in his case with the wisdom of omniscience." (180)
Visions of the amesha spentas (Amahraspands) are also frequently mentioned in the sources. The organ said to operate in this kind of vision is "the eye of the soul," which enables contact between the getig or material dimension of the world and the menog or spiritual dimension. Vision of the menog world is a theme that "seems to have been alive throughout the whole of the Sassanian period," (181) though subsiding in post-Sassanian times. Experience of the menog dimension "was certainly not a way open to all; it was confined to a select group of people." (182)
The precise nature of this visionary situation is by no means clear. It was recognised that the "journey" into menog was potentially hazardous. "These were rare occasions, which were deemed to be surrounded by grave risks." (183) It seems that powers of endurance were severely tested in this "journey," which evidently amounted to more than just a vision. A major complexity is that the desired experience was artificially induced by some journeyers. "In some cases the preparation for this journey was done by administering to the officiant a dose of mang, or mang mixed with wine." (184) According to specialist scholars, mang refers to a narcotic. The Pahlavi term mang has been identified with the Avestan bangha or hemp.
The celebrated monarch Vishtaspa, patron of Zarathushtra, was the subject of an influential legend in which he was administered "the intoxicating potion" in order to gain a vision of the hereafter. In other words, he was credited with a resort to hemp for the purpose of undertaking a "soul journey." This monarch gained a dual reputation for achieving wisdom and for being the "vain, foolish, and vacillating" supporter suggested by late texts. (185) His "soul journey" reputedly occurred prior to his conversion to Zarathushtra's teaching, though the legend affirms that Ahura Mazda was the cause of administering to him the potion, which gave him proof of the new religion. That detail can be interpreted in terms of hindsight. Another deduction is that the pagan soul journey was resisted by the prophet's experiential tangent, which was subsequently confused with artificial ecstasy by persons of a ritual disposition. The latter category appear to have included the high priest Kirder, who is the focus of a separate reconstruction.
Kirder bequeathed a description of his own visionary journey. This, together with the version in the Arda Viraz Namag, has been analysed in terms of strong similarities to shamanistic counterparts. (186) Other commentators argue that it is not necessary to view Sassanian Zoroastrianism as a shamanistic religion, as the Zoroastrians were not the only practitioners in the technique of visions of the hereafter; Jews, Christians, and Romans have been cited as counterparts. (187) However, the resort to drugs on the part of some Sassanian priests is distinctive enough to invite comparison with shamanistic practices, however far back in time these were for Zoroastrianism. Was Zarathushtra's scorn for the controversial mada related to prehistoric mang in an allied form to the haoma potion ?
Kirder's description of his soul journey has been deemed a mere literary imitation by some analysts, a convenient means of lending distinction to his political role. Even if it be considered that Kirder was wildly exaggerating, the underlying theme is difficult to ignore as a feature of doctrine. If he had recourse to a drug, he could easily have believed in his account one hundred per cent as a genuine soul journey. An institutionalised ritual might well have favoured an artificial stimulus inherited from earlier times. A contemplative exercise outside the field of protocol and status honours is another matter entirely. As I am prepared to view Zarathushtra in the light of such an exercise independent of ritualism, my interpretation can admit factors generally discarded by scholars of this subject.
13. The Mazdakites
The practice of next-of-kin marriage is one of the less appealing emphases in the Pahlavi books, where it is praised as one of the greatest acts of merit. (188) This could involve the union of father and daughter, son and mother; those features have afforded grounds for criticism of the magi. The custom in question was known as khvedodah (khvaetvadatha), and has been viewed in one interpretation as a means of insulating the Zoroastrian religion from foreign beliefs, amounting to a form of racial segregation. This custom has been implied as a target of the reforming Mazdakite movement, which is a problematic factor to assess.
The Mazdakites were accused of sexual laxity by detractors. However, "it does not seem likely that a religion with a certain ascetic tendency, as Mazdakism seems to have been, would advocate free sexual intercourse." (189) While some scholars take the hostile reports at face value, others have seen a reform of insular marriage customs which elevated pride in family and class.
The major Zoroastrian objection to the policy of Mazdak was that this created havoc with genealogies, and with the distinction between nobility and commoners. This could have been the argument employed when women of noble birth were married to low class men in Mazdakite ranks. Under the conventional system, many women lived in harems of the noblemen, and the disbanding of those harems would have been stigmatised as promiscuous when the women were married to other partners in a more equal scheme. Exactly how the Iranian women felt about all these developments is not on record.
According to the later Arabic report of Shahrastani, the reforming Mazdak prohibited strife and war and gave free access to property. He also "advocated the killing of souls in order to extricate them from evil and from the admixture of darkness." (190) This complexity, complicated by linguistic transitions, is thought to refer "to the mortification of one's own soul, that is to say, to ascetic practices." (191) Shahrastani's important report of Mazdakite doctrine is brief, but has suggested to modern analysis that "the elect of Mazdak's faith were theurgical mystics," (192) harbouring a teaching concerning letters of the alphabet, the Great Name, and the Great Mystery. If a man combined the "four," the "seven," and the "twelve," he could become divine while still in the lesser world, no longer needing religious obligations.
While there are numerous references to the social doctrine of Mazdakism in the works of various antique historians, only the Muslim heresiographer Shahrastani (1076-1153) has reported on the philosophical outlook of the sect. "And every person in whom these powers of the Four, the Seven and the Twelve unite, he becomes [part of] God in the world below and will be relieved from religious obligation." (This is Professor M. Shaki's translation from a passage in Shahrastani's Kitab al-milal wa'l nihal.) The report of Shahrastani is very condensed, and some expressions may represent glosses imposed by Islamic thought.
The Seven and the Twelve have been open to conjectural associations with the planets and the Signs of the Zodiac. The Four has been construed in terms of innate divine powers such as discrimination and intelligence. Professor Mansour Shaki has seen in this report a different cosmology to that of Manichaeism; he views Mazdak as subscribing to Mazdean (Zoroastrian) ideas on astrology, whereas Mani disapproved of astromantic practices. Shaki's "communist" interpretation was averse to the sentence in Shahrastani which "explicitly declares Mazdak to be a mystic and theosophist, pure and simple, that recalls Hallaj proclaiming ana'l-haqq." The insinuation is made that the influence of Sufi mysticism has coloured the record here, and instead a comparison is made with the tattva theory of the Indian materialists. (193)
In contrast, Professor Shaul Shaked has suggested that "some of the mystical fervour of Islam was derived from Zoroastrianism," (194) and mentions the name of Abu Yazid al-Bistami in the context of Sufi esotericism barely removed from Zoroastrian forbears. (195) Bistami was a ninth century Sufi of Khurasan. According to the same assessment, the more radical type of Sufi mysticism "belongs largely to the Iranian type of religious thinking," (196) and could therefore link with earlier Iranian mystical attitudes. While Sufi mysticism in Iran was strongly influenced by Islamic doctrine and Arab blood, it is also true that a fair number of the early Iranian Sufi mystics were very close in time and genetics to Zoroastrian antecedents.
Various arguments surround the issue of Mazdak, who has been called a "communist prophet" in modern scholarly literature. (197) His detractors credited him with an insistence upon the abolition of social inequalities; the abolition of social classes and class privileges evoked a positive response from the poor, but directly threatened the position of the nobles and the Mazdean clergy. Shaki has interpreted Middle Persian sources in terms of Mazdak being the most prominent and militant reformer of Zoroastrianism, and a follower of the sect called drist-den, founded by Zaradusht-i Khurragan of Fasa. (198) Some other scholars have described Mazdak as a Manichaean reformer, but this does not seem likely.
The term drist-den appears to have designated a sect who were tolerated for several generations as one of the numerous Zoroastrian heresies. (199) The ascendancy of Mazdak created a brief revolutionary period which may have drastically altered the earlier pacifist codes of the drist-den, resulting in the estates and harems of the nobility being forcibly expropriated and redistributed amongst the poor. The so-called "community of women" has been interpreted in terms of a marriage system which refused to follow the code of priestly social stigma and hereditary honours; no immorality is necessarily implied. (200)
Three Middle Persian (Pahlavi) texts from the Denkard have been identified as referring to the Mazdakites. These three passages are fragmentary and brief, preserving the attitude of the orthodox priests. Two of these texts are censorious and one is more impartial, informing that the Mazdakites preached righteous deeds, abstention from sin, and abstention from sacerdotal function. It appears that the sect rarely performed Zoroastrian rituals, although they did follow the essential Zoroastrian faith. (201) The Muslim sources in Arabic are more detailed, though in general adopting a hostile perspective.
One interpretation has viewed Mazdak as a militant social reformer, and also presented his royal patron Kavad I (rgd 489-531 A.D.) as an opportunist who tried to turn the movement to regal advantage by constricting the privileges of the nobility. It appears that the subsequent Sassanian monarch Khusrau I suppressed the name of the heretical Mazdak from all records after the severe persecution of Mazdakites which occurred. Ibn al-Muqaffa (d.760) introduced an account of Mazdak in Arabic, translated from a Middle Persian work of fiction; this apparently served as the main source for later Perso-Arab historians. Mazdakite writings did not survive the grim persecution. As a consequence, we are very poorly informed about the events in question.
The Mazdakite sect is said to have been founded by Zaradusht ibn Khurragan, a mobad or chief mobad from Fasa in Fars. The Danish scholar Arthur Christensen identified this man with a Manichaean called Bundos who, according to John Malalas of Antioch, appeared at Rome during the reign of Diocletian (284-306), taught doctrines distinct from the Manichaean majority, and who departed for Persia. Christensen thus regarded Mazdakism as a reforming Manichaean sect, whereas Otokar Klima regarded Zaradusht and Bundos as separate entities, though believing that the former's teaching derived from the latter. Another theory has dated Zaradusht to the fifth century A.D., and a strong argument has been advanced that his movement was Zoroastrian in origin. (202)
A point at issue is how far this movement developed Gnostic features that lent some affinity with Manichaeism. There seems no need to invoke Carpocratean associations. It has been urged that the egalitarian sharing of wealth, women, and wisdom can be traced to Zoroastrianism, as in the rule of the Vendidad: "he who asks for a wife shall be given a wife to marry." (203) A sympathetic explanation is that Mazdakites were not trying to be promiscuous, but instead trying to reform marriage customs that were abused by the wealthy who maintained extensive harems.
The obscure drist-den movement was revived by Mazdak son of Bamdad, of whom little is known. He is said to have been a mobad or distinguished priest. The extant sources, in different languages, mostly dwell on the alleged community of women and the resulting promiscuity. The sixth century Greek source John Malalas implies that the Mazdakites were Manichaeans, perhaps merely repeating a slander arising in Iran. Analysts like Professor Ehsan Yarshater have considered these reports to be a heresiographical muddle, and instead suggest that Mazdak advocated the right of each man to have a wife and pressed for the abolition of social barrriers to marriages between nobles and commoners as part of a reform of Zoroastrianism. (204) Mazdak met a premature death at the end of Kavad's reign in the early sixth century, when his sect was persecuted and scattered, and the distinction between nobles and commoners was firmly restored.
The principal source for Shahrastani appears to have been Abu Isa Harun al-Warraq, who was a learned Manichaean or Zoroastrian scholar converted to Islam in the ninth century; he is thought to have had access to Mazdakite materials, but this matter is obscure. The degree of authenticity attaching to the coverage by Shahrastani is uncertain. One argument has been that, in sources other than Shahrastani, Mazdak is not reported to have emphasised deification of the spiritually enlightened, a factor which could have been used in the long list of accusations made against him. Therefore, it is unlikely that he promoted any such doctrine. In support of this theory, Professor Shaki quotes a passage from the Denkard which says that some of the (Mazdakite) sectaries affirmed that, through righteousness, one becomes the best of beings in the corporeal world as well as in the impalpable world. (205) However, the Mazdakite conception of righteousness appears to have been more comprehensive and radical than the orthodox priestly conception, and therefore extensions could easily have existed.
On the basis of two Denkard passages and the account of Shahrastani, it has been deduced that Mazdakism was the forerunner of the numerous Islamic groupings who promoted the unorthodox trend of thought known as batiniyya.The implication is that Mazdakites, like the Manichaeans and later Batiniyya and also Sufis, recognised different levels of spiritual hierarchy. In the Batini context, for instance, the novice passed through various stages to reach a final stage which relieved him from the obligation of religious observances. Similarly, the Mazdakites appear to have stressed peace, righteousness, asceticism, self-mortification, temperance in eating, and abstention from meat as preliminaries to an eventual stage at which the mysteries of the "four," "seven," and "twelve" were revealed, resulting in an enlightenment which relieved the recipient of the obligation to religious observance.
The Mazdakites believed that righteousness (ahlayih), and not ritualism, was essential to salvation. This factor has been interpreted in terms of their brotherhood being founded on esoteric (batini) principles and unorthodox intepretation of the Avesta (comparable with the exegesis known in Arabic as tawil). According to Professor Shaki, the Shah-Nama of Firdausi has preserved the original Pahlavi formulation in which Mazdak states that the hidden meaning (nehani) of the true path is necessary knowledge for "our faith." This nehani (Pahlavi nihanih) in all likelihood referred to esoteric meanings of the Avesta. The Muslim commentators Al-Biruni and Ibn al-Athir report the Mazdakite abstinence from meat and their aversion to the killing of cattle. Opinions have been divided as to the accuracy of those reports, which may be true. (206)
Disagreements have arisen about the Gnostic elements claimed by some modern scholars as the basis for affinity between Mazdakism and Manichaeism. Those elements include pacifism, asceticism, "fatalism," esoteric interpretation, and the rejection of ritual. The major issue here is asceticism, a feature which is difficult to prove. Some commentators associate asceticism with vegetarianism, though Shahrastani's reference to "the killing of souls" is perhaps more relevant. Professor Yarshater has argued for a contrast between ascetic and hedonistic tendencies in Mazdakism, explaining this in terms of a self-denying elite and worldly lay members. Critics of this theory have viewed it as the reverse of what is suggested by a gloss to Vendidad 4.49. This hostile gloss alleges that Mazdak ate fully himself but subjected others to hunger and death; the dispossessed rich men are perhaps implied here.
The suggestion has been made that Mazdakites may have borrowed some ideas from the Carpocratean sect of Gnostics at some conjectural point in time. (207) That is a very speculative matter. The Carpocratean sect emerged in the second century A.D., and are generally classified under the blanket term of Gnosticism; their alleged antinomianism has received differing assessments. "It is probably mistaken to conclude from this that the Carpocrateans taught the living of a dissolute life." (208)
Mazdak was said by later detractors to have advocated free love. He is also said to have closed most of the Zoroastrian fire temples, a gesture which would obviously have aroused the strong opposition of clergy. There are various hostile references in Syriac, Greek, and Arabic sources. No Mazdakite source has survived, and this factor has aroused caution amongst some modern scholars as to the accuracy of hostile accounts.
A notable conclusion of Professor Yarshater is that two opposing tendencies developed within the the same broad movement (of Mazdakism, which he extends into the Islamic era). The founder of Mazdakism taught a pacifistic code, and exhorted his followers to resist sensuality, though allowing the majority of adherents an enjoyment of life in moderation, and without competition and without causing suffering. The conclusion here is that at least some of the leaders, or some factions of the movement, were committed to self-denial.Yet circumstances during the reign of Kavad I turned many Mazdakites into militant sectaries, establishing a precedent of armed insurrection which later sects furthered during the Islamic era. An ethical and pacifist teaching thus became a militant ideology bent on correcting social injustice. A partial parallel is afforded by the much later Safavid dynasty, which transited from Sufi beginnings to an aggressive militancy. (209)
14. The Reign of Khusrau I
According to the Muslim historian Tabari, the Sassanian monarch Khusrau I (rgd 531-79) confiscated the properties of the Mazdakite leaders and distributed these amongst the poor. Khusrau assisted in the execution of many Mazdakites who had allegedly seized the properties of other people, but it seems to have been the poor who were then benefiting from the redistribution of wealthy assets. However, aberrations may have occurred when a mood of mob violence caused granaries to be plundered in 494-5. That was long before the reign of Khusrau, who championed the priesthood in a situation that is very imperfectly known. Mazdakites were then accused of having taken property and women by force.
Mazdak is thought to have counselled a series of measures designed to divest the higher classes of their excessive privileges. Those measures are thought to have included the breaking up of large estates, the prohibition of hoarding, adjustment of the shares from crops acquired by landlords, the reduction of class distinctions, and the institution of public foundations for the benefit of the poor. Mazdak seems to have been welcomed by peasants and artisans, though he apparently did not include the slaves in his social programme.
According to Professor Yarshater's version of events, the support of the monarch Kavad I resulted in disturbances created by a Mazdakite mob who attacked granaries, storehouses, and mansions. The insurgents disbanded harems. The excesses eventually caused Kavad to agree to a suppression of the Mazdakite movement, a suppression in which his son Khusrau played a major role. The suggestion has been made that the Mazdakite disruptions were possibly accompanied by Mazdakite mismanagement of common properties, causing many earlier supporters to feel alienated and to desire a return to comparative law and order. (210)
Dual characteristics are associated with the reign of Khusrau I, alias Anushirvan. He gained a reputation for justice in the eyes of posterity, despite his persecution of the Mazdakites. He is associated with a programme of reforms in taxation and military organisation, thought to have been commenced in the preceding reign of Kavad I. In fact, the burden of taxation on the peasantry is now believed to have contributed strongly to the popularity of Mazdak. That taxation problem became very oppressive towards the end of the fifth century, being based upon the exaction of agricultural produce according to an annual output assessed by royal tax-collectors. Furthermore, a burdensome poll-tax was also extracted from many subjects in the realm, and thought to have been paid mostly in money. A modern source (Ency. Iranica) refers to "the avarice of corrupt tax-assessors."
The reforms apparently started with Kavad I, a detail which would fit the public mood sympathetic to Mazdak. A new system was devised for exacting land-tax, and a control mechanism was vested in priests who acted as district judges. Khusrau is credited with revising the poll-tax in terms of imposing rates according with the means of the taxpayer, and exempting people below the age of twenty and above fifty in all social classes. However, this new system did not abolish the exemptions applying to members of the higher classes, meaning the priests and nobles. An accompanying agricultural reform was devised to prevent the growth of vast estates whose owners could acquire special privileges and immunity to taxation.
The reforms appear to have gained "moderate success for a few decades," but difficulties occurred at the end of the reign of Khusrau. The new system proved further prey to corruption. There were strained relations between soldiers and civilians, especially in the more remote areas of the Sassanian realm. "In effect, the king could restrain only the soldiers under his direct command from despoiling the rural taxpayers" (Z. Rubin, "Kosrow I ii. Reforms," 2009, Encyclopaedia Iranica online). Taxation became increasingly extortionate. Huge sums of money are reported by Tabari to have accumulated in the coffers of the succeeding monarch, although this hoarding was not derived solely from taxes.
The Islamic historian Masudi reports that Khusrau I prohibited Zoroastrians from engaging in theological discussions about sectarian matters. Yet the monarch is also associated with a liberal policy of studying writings of the Greeks and Indians, (211) a policy emerging in the earlier reign of Shapur I, and which may well reflect the cross-cultural inclinations of some learned scribes. This liberal tendency adheres very closely to the memory of Buzurgmihr (Pahlavi: Wuzurgmihr), an entity sometimes described as a minister or "vizier" of Khusrau, though he was probably a secretary or learned scribe (dibir). Buzurgmihr is depicted as a sage with an ideal of universal wisdom, and is said to have brought the game of chess from India. (212)
The category of dibir is described in the Tansar Nama as one of the four classes in Sassanian society; the scribes denoted were usually employed as secretaries and could achieve various state offices, thus gaining a political importance. Those scribes recorded events, wrote or copied books, and dealt with royal correspondence. They were not priests. Buzurgmihr was adopted in the much later tradition of ishraqi philosophy as a figurehead of ancient Iranian wisdom; the ishraqi disposition for Greek and Indian material is notable.
A group of Greek philosophers sought refuge at the court of Khusrau I as a consequence of friction with Byzantine authorities. Yet Damascius and his colleagues are believed to have been disillusioned with the situation they found, discovering that Persia was not an ideal state as they had hoped, and that Khusrau was nothing of a philosopher-king, lacking any familiarity with philosophical subtleties. The visitors soon returned westwards. (213) One might conclude that, although these Greek visitors were tolerated in Iran, they were not understood, save perhaps by learned "universalists" like Buzurgmihr.
Different explanations have been given for the formation of the Zoroastrian scriptural corpus. The matter is attended by uncertainties. Some commentators think that the text of the Avesta was fixed during the fourth century A.D., a matter involving much editing and being cast into written form. Professors Nyberg and Widengren favoured the reign of Khusrau I in relation to this development. However, some scholars emphasise that such a written text would have remained largely inaccessible to Zoroastrians at large, and that the majority of priests would have continued their habit of oral recitation via memorising the sacred text. One view is that the accompanying zand would not have been committed to writing during the Sassanian era, the vernacular translation and commentary denoted by that word being reserved for oral transmission.
According to Professor Widengren's theory, Khusrau I presided over an extensive editorial project in which orthodox material was preserved and "Zurvanite" materials excised from the zand. This anti-Zurvanite censorship has been contested by some other scholars, who argue that the zand did not exist in written form at this era, and that a censorship process could not have operated on oral transmission. The critics of Widengren point out that several Zurvanite themes escaped the presumed censorship, and furthermore doubt whether the Zurvanites existed as any organised heresy.
What is definite is that Khusrau I suppressed the Mazdakite movement. One suspects that some teachings could have been excised, whether or not these were identified as "Zurvanite" by opponents. If the theory of Widengren has any validity, it is possible to allow that radical Zurvanites may have existed in addition to conservative counterparts, the former perhaps converging with Mazdakite teachings. As Mazdak apparently exposited the zand, his esoteric version of Zoroastrianism would have been a major target for orthodox disapproval.
The alternative explanation for extant zand compilations is that these were not written down until after the Islamic conquest, by one or more groups of priests in the ninth and tenth centuries. These transmitters were trying to preserve what they considered to be worthy of survival. The result has been described as "a very narrow and one-sided selection of zand material." (214) Although differences on minor points are in evidence, a more or less unified interpretation is deducible for that late period of priestly hindsight.
15. NeoMazdakites of the Islamic Era
Differences of opinion apply to the nature of the phenomenon known as NeoMazdakite. This description has been applied to religious sects existing during the early Islamic era. However, some scholars stress that, although these Islamic era sects may have adopted certain elements of earlier Mazdakite theology, they should be clearly distinguished from the precedent, as they employed other doctrinal materials also. (215) Thus, the designation of "neoMazdakite" comprises a generalising term requiring to be understood in due perspective.
The violent persecution associated with Khusrau the Just sent the Mazdakites underground. The version of Professor Yarshater suggests that sequels occurred during the Islamic era, when some Zoroastrians became Muslims in order to escape royal wrath and the poll-tax (jizya) exacted from non-Muslims. The Zoroastrian landed gentry are said to have gradually adopted the Sunni version of Islam and sided with the state, whereas the "NeoMazdakites" are linked with the formation of Shia doctrine.
According to Yarshater, the extremist Shi'is (ghulat) were practically identical in their doctrine to the Khurramis or NeoMazdakites. This version of events strongly implies that it was the Mazdakites, now professing Islam, who primarily inspired the ideas of groupings generally known as extremist Shi'is. Other origins for the ghulat have also been discussed, including the "Sabaeans" associated with Harran, and even Judaeo-Christian sects. Yarshater deemed the Mazdakite case to be the most convincing, though conceding that other channels affected by Gnostic and messianic beliefs prior to Islam may have contributed.
The basically discernible ghulat beliefs have been listed as: the incarnation or "indwelling" (hulul) of divinity in the prophets and imams (leaders), reincarnation (tanasukh), the concealment of the imam, and interpretation of scripture according to inner meaning (batin).
The Islamic sources often use terms like batini, zindiq ("freethinker"), and Qarmati in an imprecise manner; this factor makes for difficulties in assessing local or factional differences which must have existed amongst the "NeoMazdakites." An equation has been made between batinis and Ismailis, who have been viewed as a Neomazdakite variant in some interpretations. Though basically an Iranian phenomenon, it would appear that Mazdakism had followers among the Arabs at an early date, having penetrated to Hira during the reign of Kavad I. Kufa is also implied as a focus for NeoMazdakite activity, which has been associated with the first "communistic" Qarmati village colonies appearing in that region of Iraq.
According to Professor Yarshater, we cannot always be certain how much of the Batini and Khurrami beliefs can be safely attributed to the pre-Islamic phase, though we cannot deny the endurance and continuity of Mazdakite concepts in the Islamic era under different guises. (216) Whatever the presumed affinities of Ismaili thought with NeoMazdakism, Ismaili writers depicted Mazdak as an adversary of Zarathushtra, (217) thus siding with the version of Zoroastrian priests. This detail reflects the traditional Zoroastrian portrayal of Mazdak as an arch-heretic. In contrast, some of the earliest sects of Shia Islam seem to have remembered the heretic in a very different light. For instance, the rebel leader Sunpad, who was supported by the mountain peoples of Khurasan against the Abbasid Caliphate, preached that their hero Abu Muslim was not dead but lived on in the company of Mazdak and the esteemed mahdi. (218) Mazdak appears to have been enthusiastically commemorated amongst the lower classes and the disaffected for centuries after.
The Muslim scholar (and scientist) Al-Biruni conferred Mazdakite auspices upon Al-Muqanna, the "veiled prophet" of Khurasan who rose against the caliph Al-Mahdi in 777 A.D. Al-Muqanna is disparaged in the Muslim sources; he was besieged and defeated in 785-6, and is said to have committed suicide by throwing himself into a fire to avoid captivity. Biruni states in general terms that Al-Muqanna prescribed for his followers everything Mazdak had introduced. Muslims of later centuries conceived of Al-Muqanna as having claimed to be the final divine incarnation, as having taught the transmigration of souls, and as favouring sexual license. It is definite that his following comprised Sogdian peasants and Turkish tribesmen of Transoxiana. (219)
The designation of Khurramiyya is found in Islamic sources as a kind of blanket term for the Mazdakite movement and various Iranian sects which appear to have been offshoots. Professor W. Madelung has cautioned that attempts to establish a close link between the Khurramiyya and the Qarmatis and Ismailis must be viewed with reserve. (220)
Scholarly discussions of the Khurramiyya tend to revolve around Babak, said to have been a dihqan or landowner of Azerbaijan, and one who inherited ideas and customs of the Islamic phase "Mazdakites." In 817 he rebelled against the Abbasid Caliph and maintained resistance for two decades in north-west Iran until 837 A.D., when he was defeated and executed. The Khurramis (or Khurramdinis) believed in the transmigration of souls, though it would seem that this belief was open to superstitions manipulated by leaders of the revolt.
Prior to the time of Babak, the Khurramis were peaceful farmers, refraining from killing or harming others. Babak is said to have changed these people into militants eager to fight and kill; he incited them to hate the Arabs and to rebel against the Caliph. The hostile reports allege that he ordered his warriors to destroy villages after seizing adjacent castles. Gradually a large multitude were encouraged to join him. For long there had been groups of Khurramis scattered in Isfahan, Azarbaijan, Rayy, Hamadan, Armenia, and elsewhere. There had been some earlier revolts, though not on the scale achieved by Babak. Several of the Muslim sources affirm that the sect was an offshoot of Mazdakism, a testimony which is difficult to discount. (221) Some modern scholars have urged that a mixture of Zoroastrian and Muslim beliefs was involved.
The followers of Babak have been described as including all surviving members of the formerly strong movement of Khurramiyya, "so that Babak himself could be called a Khurrami," urged Widengren. These convergent groupings are said to have arisen from the lower classes. Babak's community became known in Arabic as al-Babakiyyah (followers of Babak), and also as al-Muhammirah, "the red-clad," a reference to the red warrior banners they carried, symptomatic of their martial spirit. Although the Babakiyyah has often been called a syncretistic trend, one view has been that "it is really doubtful whether there really were any Islamic ideas to be found in it." (222)
Babak soon soon became the subject of legendary tales, along with his predecessor Javidan. It is very difficult to say whether there is any historical truth in these tales. However, they have been considered relevant as an indication of what rites were practised amongst the followers of Babak. According to the Fihrist of Al-Nadim, when Javidan died, his widow married Babak, declaring him to be her husband's successor. The warriors of Javidan assembled, and there was a ritual of slaying a bull, followed by a communal meal partaking of wine and bread, and an oath of allegiance to Babak. Widengren aligned these rites with features of the Mithraic mysteries. (223) The doctrines of the Babakiyyah are said to have been based on the strict dualism between Light and Darkness common to all types of Iranian religion. (224)
Most Islamic accounts of the Khurramiyya are brief and biased. The participants are all said to have believed in the transmigration of souls, which is not a feature of Islamic doctrine and which has been implied as a feature of Mazdak's worldview. They believed that prophetic revelation never ceased, and that the same divine spirit inhered in all prophets. They were much concerned with cleanliness and purity (conceivably a Zoroastrian trait), and strictly avoided bloodshed except when they decided on rebellion against oppressors.
Some of the Khurramiyya are said to have maintained that promiscuity was permissible with female consent. There is uncertainty about the accuracy of such allegations from later opponents. Professor W. Madelung states that the more extravagant cliches of some writers concerning sexual libertinism of the Khurramiyya deserve no credence. There is no sound evidence for the alleged community of women among them. The same scholar concludes that the Mazdakite and Manichaean basis of Khurrami beliefs is evident. (225)
The subject of the early Shi'ite "extremists" (226) is complex, and one that cannot be written off in terms of heresiographical debauchery or mere violent reactionaries. (227) One sympathetic reconstruction of basic Mazdakism implies a custom of restriction to one wife only, along with secret rites involving solemn vows upon initiation, accompanied by strict rules concerning diet and cleanliness. The participants supported each other as a community, and shunned nominal groupings bearing the same name but who did not adhere to the disciplinary vows. Such recent assessment has been based upon a still existing rural group of Shi'is. (228)
The most important source on pre-Islamic Mazdakite religion remains the vestigial report of Muhammad al-Shahrastani, written circa 1127. Shahrastani lived in Khurasan and was an Asharite theologian with a broad-minded outlook, believed by some of his contemporaries to have become a secret convert to Ismailism. (229) In the relevant section of his Kitab al-milal wa'l nihal, (230) he may at best have transmitted traditions preserved by persecuted "NeoMazdakites" in Islamic times. It should be stressed that disagreements have arisen over the details of this brief report, the accuracy of which is uncertain (see section 13 above).
The description of Mazdakism as a Gnostic movement has provoked the counter-argument that: "Mazdakism differs from Gnostic teachings, and especially Manichaeism, in its fundamentally positive, non-ascetic attitude toward the world and the powers that govern it." (231) The positive interpretation of the planets is here invoked, a theme implying mystical connotations. The present writer would prefer to suggest that early Mazdakism harboured elements of small g gnosticism (the capital G variety having become attended by inflexible conceptions amongst opponents of anything "ascetic").
The comparativist Mircea Eliade began to tentatively distinguish between an early Christian gnosis (small g) and Gnosticism, (232) and indeed between Gnosticism and "the numerous earlier or contemporary gnoses." (233) Yet that scholar created confusion in his references to a libertine Gnostic sect, the Phibionists, and by using blanket descriptions such as: "The Gnostic finds himself completely alienated from his own culture and rejects all of its norms and institutions; the inner freedom obtained by gnosis enables him to comport himself freely and to act as he pleases." (234) That may well have been true of the degenerate element in Gnostic ranks, but is an assessment far less appropriate to other categories of Gnostic. Many generalisations expressed about Gnosis and gnosis are very muddled in the contemporary era, and a useful exercise is to focus upon the tangible data giving rise to the theories and misconceptions.
16. Zoroastrianism in the Islamic Era
In 635 A.D., the conquest of Sassanian Iran was commenced by the Muslims. The invading Arabs quickly gained a victory in Iraq, and entered the deserted capital of Ctesiphon in 637. The last Sassanian emperor Yazdagird fled with his imperial court. The remnant of his army was decisively defeated at the battle of Nihawand in 641. The invaders pressed forward into Fars and Khurasan, completing the conquest in 654. The Sassanian empire was completely overthrown. Khusrau the Just and other monarchs passed into legend.
The priests were now the underdogs and heretics, though Zoroastrians were officially tolerated as a "people of the book," meaning their scriptural tradition nominally recognised by Islam. Yet the Manichaeans were opposed on theological grounds. The sub-surface influence of the banished Manichaeans "is to be seen in certain Ismaili cosmologies and most likely also in some of the writings of Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi," (235) the philosopher and freethinker of the ninth/tenth centuries.
Eliade touched on a theme elsewhere magnified. The comparativist referred to "the nostalgia for ancient Persia felt by Suhrawardi [Maqtul] and many other Iranian poets and mystics." (236) Some other commentators have described that nostalgia in terms of a mere nationalism, but this is not universally agreed upon. The retrospective evaluation was not accompanied by the factual details available today. It is certain that the Islamic ruling classes exercised a repressive policy towards Zoroastrianism, and this feature is sociologically relevant.
Economic penalties were a major incentive to conversion amongst Zoroastrians, and not the sword. Yet there was considerable harassment in some urban centres like Bukhara, where the military general Qutaiba was intent upon undermining and eradicating Zoroastrianism. A member of a small Arab tribe, Qutaiba was appointed governor of Khurasan in 704 A.D. A few years later, the town of Merv revolted against Arab rule, and Qutaiba sacked this city, achieving a massacre of the male population and taking the women and children as slaves. These details can shock modern audiences.
The relentless policy of Qutaiba was to establish permanent garrisons in the subjected Iranian cities of this region, to build mosques, and to recruit local fighters into his ruthless army. According to the chronicler Al-Biruni, Qutaiba destroyed the ancient culture of Khwarezm by killing all the learned men and eliminating their writings. A much greater degree of fighting occurred in the Central Asian zone than in Iran proper; it is thought that the majority of the population in Central Asia were probably Zoroastrians. A large number of slaves were taken from this area (Khwarezm and other territories) to the Near East during the Islamic conquests. Some of those victims returned to Central Asia with a different sense of cultural values as converts to Islam, though historians speak of an Islamic veneer.
As a consequence of drastic military measures, the majority in Central Asia quite quickly became Muslims, whereas the pace of conversion was much slower in Iran. Islamic learning flourished in Central Asian cities like Balkh, Tirmiz, Bukhara, and Samarkand during the early Abbasid era (750 A.D. onwards). This development has been viewed in terms of the converts creating a new Islamic culture superseding the values of Arab tribesmen. (237)
Many urban Zoroastrian sacred fires disappeared during the rule of the Ummayyad caliphs (661-750 A.D.), but many small towns and villages in Iran remained predominantly Zoroastrian. The priestly head of the Zoroastrians, now known as the Hudinan peshobay, resided in Fars (the Arab name for Pars province) as successor to the mobads of Sassanian Persia. In the attempt to gain a dialogue with Islam, some Zoroastrian priests learnt Arabic, and undertook debates with Muslim savants. The Pahlavi books evidence an awareness of the Quran and basic Islamic doctrines, and extending to Mutazilite theology.
Although the ninth century has been described as a time of renaissance for Zoroastrianism, due to the compilation of Pahlavi works like the Denkard, the Abbasid era saw increasing pressures to conversion. Zealous Islamic preaching missions went out from the cities into the villages, which still harboured many Zoroastrians during the ninth century. Harassment sometimes accompanied these missions, which could spark into violence. There was also an element of officially sanctioned coercion. A strategy of Islamic officialdom was to rule that any Zoroastrian convert to Islam could eventually claim the entire assets of their family.
Despite such afflictions, Fars province managed to retain a strong Zoroastrian presence in some towns until the early eleventh century, with fire temples existing in many places. A factor involved in the continuation has been assessed in terms of "the depth of national pride in what had been the cradle of both the Achaemenian and Sassanian dynasties." (238)
Fars (Pars) had been the home of Zoroastrian magi for many centuries. By the sixteenth century, the Zoroastrian presence had dwindled substantially in this region. A variant of the priestly learning achieved expression in the unorthodox figure of Azar Kaivan (d.1618), who lived at Istakhr, a village close to the ancient site of Persepolis. Kaivan followed the trend of priests to learn Arabic and to be in contact with learned Muslims. His Zoroastrian version of ishraqi philosophy is still obscure in many respects. He emigrated to Mughal India in the face of religious intolerance that mounted during the Safavid era. (239)
Meanwhile, the new incoming waves of Turks and Mongols severely hit Zoroastrianism. The Turks were zealous Muslims who tended to eliminate religious minorities, and the Mongols habitually destroyed so much that lay in their path. Surviving Zoroastrians retreated to the desert regions adjoining the cities of Yazd and Kirman, affording refuges where the old faith was able to persist at a rural level in comparatively sheltered villages. The high priest of Fars moved to the Yazd locale at an unknown date, his companions taking Pahlavi and Avestan manuscripts that were continually in danger of being destroyed by Muslim zealots. Petty harassments and more severe outbreaks of religious animosity persisted in the Yazd locale also.
Although a small number of Zoroastrians managed to become affluent, particularly at Kirman (where some of them participated in the wool trade), the majority were reduced to being agricultural workers (and gardeners) living in poverty. They were a hardworking and long-suffering community, gaining a reputation for honesty inspired by the clause of "good thoughts, good words, good deeds" at the root of their religion. Their very poverty appears to have gained them a degree of toleration as a harmless, if contemptible, population of "fire worshippers." The latter epithet was an Islamic reference to the priestly custom of maintaining sacred fires. Yet the existence of Zoroastrians was never secure, and subject to hooligan attacks.
Zoroastrian villages near the ascendant city of Isfahan seem to have been destroyed in wars, but a small community recruited from Yazd and Kirman was settled at the new capital of Shah Abbas I in 1608. Housed on the outskirts of Isfahan, they served as labourers and weavers, working for a bare livelihood as social underdogs. In 1699, this tragically depressed community was eliminated in a single day, when the Safavid monarch Shah Sultan Husayn was persuaded by Islamic theologians to sign a decree for the forced conversion of infidels. While a number of terrified Zoroastrians yielded to conversion at swordpoint, many others courageously chose to die, loathing the fanatical oppressors. A few victims are said to have escaped southwards from the bloodstained capital of Shia Islam, (240) now a majoritarian factor very different to the early Shi'i minorities.
Another form of escape had occurred in the tenth century, when a group of Zoroastrians from a small town in Khurasan departed by sea to India, landing on the coast of Gujarat in 936 A.D. They were the founders of the Parsi ("Persian") community in Western India, which became concentrated in the area of Bombay (now Mumbai). Starting as farmers and weavers, the Parsis later became prosperous, and nurtured a reformist movement in modern times. Their milieu contrasted very markedly with that of Zoroastrians in Iran, and they gained a far greater degree of freedom by the nineteenth century. (241) Their fellow religionists in Iran were known as Irani Zoroastrians, whose lives were moulded by a conservative disposition imposed by the priesthood.
The Zoroastrians did not gain a political representative in Iran until the establishment of a liberal constitutional government in 1906. A national parliament or Majlis was then established, and one of the first members to be elected was a Zoroastrian, a merchant banker named Jamshidian. The new liberal view in Iran was that all religious minorities should be allowed fair representation, the criterion being that they were Iranian and not Muslim. Conservative Muslim clerics clashed with educated Muslim laymen over many legislative issues, denouncing the innovations as an emulation of European attitudes.
The Iranian programme of national reforms at that time clearly aimed at "severely curbing clerical influence, and once the constitutional government was established, measures were immediately taken to secularise those very institutions the ulama (clergy) had controlled for so many centuries." (242) Subsequent events have been much discussed and debated, and are part of political history.
17. The Parsi Reformists
Meanwhile, a programme of religious reform had been proposed and conducted by Parsis in Western India, where customs perpetuated by Zoroastrian priests came under strong question from educated Parsis. A major incentive was provided by one Nauroji Ferdunji, a Parsi who lived in Bombay. In 1851, he founded the Zoroastrian Reform Society (Rahnumai Mazdayasnan Sabha). His declared intention was "to fight orthodoxy, yet with no rancour or malice... to break through the thousand and one religious prejudices that tend to retard the progress and civilisation of the community." (243)
The reformist trend aroused strong opposition from the orthodox, and there were many frictions arising between the two parties. There was a tendency of the reformists to adopt the religious interpretations of (Protestant) Christian scholars from the West, but whatever drawbacks there may have been here, education did improve substantially. (244) Many Parsis were educated at the Elphinstone Institute, founded at Bombay in 1827 under British colonial auspices, and promoting a curriculum of European education. This influential establishment contributed to a Western-educated Parsi literati who nurtured reformist tendencies, and who created a new professional class which eclipsed the prestige of the priesthood. The sons of priests often found a secular career more appealing, and also better paid.
The Parsi reformist ideals gained some attention from Muslim liberals in Iran, who applied their new patriotic perspective to an increased respect for the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. This trend was in evidence during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi, who came to the throne in 1925. The emphasis of the Pahlavi monarchy on the pre-Islamic cultural heritage of Iran percolated to school textbooks, but is subject to criticism for having "traced a national historical continuity from pre-Islamic times to the present through the institution of the monarchy." (245) Furthermore, the Pahlavi monarchy resorted to harsh and coercive means to further their policies, and this drawback eventually alienated their supporters.
Meanwhile, the Irani Zoroastrians became concentrated in Tehran, moving to the capital from their provincial situations at Yazd and Kirman. The number of priests dwindled very substantially, with many priestly families taking up secular careers at Tehran. The number of working priests at Yazd was over two hundred in the 1930's, but diminished to only ten by the 1960's, a reduction that furthermore lacked a high priest. This loss in numbers was even more pronounced at Kirman, where only three or four working priests existed in 1962. (246) Modern Zoroastrianism became very largely a lay community, both in India and Iran.
Assessments of the Zoroastrian religion have varied markedly even amongst the adherents. Strong tendencies to reformism have occurred in both twentieth century Iran and India, and thus a critical spirit is possible without offending any considerations of the undoubted ethical value of the ancient faith. One factor which frequently evokes criticism is the tendency of the priests to have laid "such stress on the merit of having rituals performed that they almost appear to suggest that salvation could be bought by this means." (247) That tendency is evident in early texts like the Vendidad, and also in the much later New Persian Rivayats. The latter documents are not to be confused with the Pahlavi Rivayat literature of earlier centuries.
The word rivayat (which is Arabic) designates a text devoted to miscellaneous beliefs and observances of the orthodox priestly religion. The Persian Rivayats comprise letters written by Irani dasturs (high priests) to the Parsis, and date between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries A.D. Rituals and practices are described that were not to the taste of later reformists, and there are even included "a handful of Avestan manthras (called in Persian nirangs) to be used virtually as spells to ward off evils." (248)
The origins of Zoroastrian priestly legislation are very obscure. The Vendidad certainly provided some detailed prescriptions. The priests here codified what are known as "purity laws," a body of observances which accumulated additions over the centuries. Those purity laws imposed many rites upon the laity as well as priests, and the former must have found these burdensome. The system of rules was concerned to avoid pollution, but this endeavour does not tally in many respects with modern ideas of hygiene. Demonology figures prominently in the rules. Although the preoccupation with keeping water pure does seem practical enough, the lore applying to corpses is very questionable.
Some commentators have said that the practice of exposing corpses, to be eaten by vultures or dogs, was intended to protect the earth from contamination. However, the basic reason was that the corpse of a believer (equated by the priests with the concept of ashavan) was considered to be contagious because of possession by the corpse-demon (nasu druj). Yet anomalously, the corpse of a drujwant (non-believer, or worshipper of demons) was not associated with demon-possession and was instead considered to be harmless. (249)
The crude demonology in evidence has been explained in terms of a shift in emphasis from Zarathushtra's teaching to "the priestly casuistry so dominant in the Pahlavi books." (250) The original dualism of the Truth (Asha) and the Lie (Druj) was an "ethical dualism" which increasingly came to be understood by priests as "a simple dualism of good versus evil." (251) Thus, Asha now connoted the purity maintained by the priests, while Druj was identified with the pollution kept at bay by that ritual contingent.
One may credit an archaic Zarathushtran insistence that earth, water, and fire should be protected. Yet by the time of the Vendidad, such concern for the elements was part of a superstitious sacerdotalism that conceived of Druj in terms of pollution from contact with corpses and pollution from menstruating women. Those were the two major concerns of the priestly legislation about "purity." The attendant rules and taboos were carried forward into the Sassanian era, accompanied by new beliefs such as the one which insisted that the demon-haunted night brought pollution on all. (252) It is very unlikely that such ritual priests had any esoteric expertise, even if those in late retirement managed to preserve some esoteric lore, as some scholars believe. Superstition may be considered one of the greatest pollutants of the mind.
The impositions created by the priesthood for women seem extreme. Menstruation was believed to be a daeva-infested pollution, and the victim has to be isolated from the rest of the community. (253) The preoccupation with ritual cleanliness stigmatised any flow of blood, and this meant that women were considered a serious problem during their menstrual periods, a source of grave contamination. At such critical times, women were segregated and prohibited from engaging in their usual activities. "It seems that the Zoroastrian priests gradually elaborated the restrictions, which became in the end severe." (254)
In Iran by the Safavid era, it was compulsory for Zoroastrian women at such times to live in solitary confinement in small and rudimentary huts constructed in the fields. They must have been terrified of molestation in the environment they lived in. This ruling of the relentless purity laws became so dangerous by the nineteenth century that the retirement of women was upgraded to "the greater safety of houseyards or stables." (255) Discomfort was still the order of the day, even if the attention of Muslim hooligans could be avoided.
The Persian Rivayats had furthered the restrictions under discussion, the presiding dasturs (high priests) never having to leave the security of their homes. The dire restrictions were not relaxed until the early twentieth century, the delay being due to the acute conservatism of the Irani priests.
Women did not begin to take part in the public life of the comparatively progressive Parsi community in India until the late nineteenth century, after the spread of literacy outside the priesthood. Schools for girls did not exist amongst the Parsis until that time, the reformist measures gradually securing a degree of female equality. The first Iranian school for girls was founded in the early twentieth century by the leader of the Zoroastrian council (anjoman) at Yazd. (256)
Modern Zoroastrianism has been attended by a dispersal to Western countries like Britain and America. (257) Zoroastrians are small in number by comparison with other religious communities.The majority of them live in Western India, where their number was said to be over eighty thousand in 1976 (as compared with twenty-five thousand in Iran, mostly in Tehran). (258) The decreasing Parsi population generated an internal sense of alarm. (259) Reformist trends rivalled the growth of secularism. However, the number of priests significantly declined during the twentieth century. Both "orthodox" and "reformist" ideas have gained different presentations.
The "orthodox" stance became basically that of emphasising traditional religious observances and the continued use of liturgical languages (not spoken by the laity), retaining the authority of all Zoroastrian scriptures, strict endogamy, the exclusion of potential converts, and support of familiar charitable organisations as a means of promoting education and social welfare.
In contrast, the "reformists" have relied upon the Gathas, eschewing the authority of later texts; they have desired to eliminate some rituals, and to translate liturgical texts. The reformists have advocated an overhaul of priestly education, though apparently still envisaging a priesthood of hereditary formation. They frequently preferred to tolerate exogamy and to include prospective converts. The reformists have also been concerned to devise new organisations for social welfare, and advocate the application of modern science "to clarify and separate the traditionally and confusedly overlapping categories of hygiene, morality, and religion." (260)
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
November 2009 (modified Dec. 2010)
(1) D. G. Bradley, A Guide to the World's Religions (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 39. A stimulus for the traditional date of the prophet was W. B. Henning, Zoroaster, Politician or Witch Doctor ? (Oxford, 1951), which opposed H.S. Nyberg, Die Religionen des Alten Iran, trans. H. H. Schaeder (Leipzig, 1938; new edn, 1966). Cf. M. Mole, Culte, mythe et cosmologie dans l'Iran ancien (Paris, 1963 ). Cf. R. C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (London, 1961).
(2) Bradley, op. cit., p. 39.
(3) Ibid., pp. 39-40.
(4) Ibid., p. 40.
(8) Ibid., p. 41.
(9) Ibid., p. 43.
(11) Ibid., p. 39. The reference to a "museum piece" can easily arouse comment. Granted that the Zoroastrian religion is antique, and indeed archaic in origin. Yet the context of the quotation is clearly one of a religious opinion. In contrast, a philosophical and sociological investigation can yield conclusions of a neglected relevance to study in the history of religions for Zoroastrianism. The archaic phases, the Sassanian friction with Manichaeism, and the Islamic phase constriction, all betoken a complexity that requires to be duly assessed.
(12) New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology (London and New York: Hamlyn, new edn 1968, fourteenth impression, 1979), p. 312 col. 2. The authors of the section on Persia were P. Masson-Oursel and L. Morin.
(15) Ibid. The legend of Zarathushtra is set out in the Pahlavi text known as Denkard, which in its present form dates to the early Islamic era. A French translation was supplied in M. Mole, La legende de Zoroastre selon les textes pehlevis (Paris, 1967).
(16) M. Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour (Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 1992), p. 16. The "national epic" is here the Pahlavi original of the Shah-Nama, composed by the poet Firdausi in the Islamic era.
(17) R. N. Frye, The Heritage of Central Asia (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1996), p. 67. The Greek sources have frequently been criticised for exaggerations and distractions; they even associated Zarathushtra with astrology and magic. The classical Greek and Roman world was at a disadvantage for precise history. Pliny very erroneously named Zarathushtra as the inventor of magic. See further Roger Beck, "Zoroaster iv. As Perceived by the Greeks" (2002), Encyclopaedia Iranica online.
(18) Frye, op. cit., p. 68.
(20) Ibid., p. 69. This assessment has been confirmed in W. W. Malandra, "Zoroastrianism: Historical Review" (2005), Encyclopaedia Iranica online. Professor Malandra comments on "the majority of scholars seeming to favour dates around 1000 BCE."
(21) Frye, op. cit., p. 69.
(22) Ibid., p. 70.
(24) Ibid., p. 74.
(25) Ibid., p. 70.
(26) Ibid., pp. 70-1.
(27) Ibid., p. 71.
(29) J. H. Moulton, The Treasure of the Magi: A Study of Modern Zoroastrianism (London: Oxford University press, 1917), p. 252.
(30) J. H. Moulton, Early Zoroastrianism (London: Williams and Norgate, 1913), pp. 146-7.
(31) See M. Boyce, "Persian Religion in the Achaemenid Age" (279-307) in The Cambridge History of Judaism Vol. One (Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 279. The Bundahishn is here described as being part of the Pahlavi literature, "most of which was written down between the fourth and tenth centuries C.E." The relevant chapter in that text contains king-lists, and refers to Kavi Vishtaspa, "which sets the prophet's floruit at '258 years before Alexander.' This is the date expressly recorded, as that assigned by the Zoroastrians to their prophet, by the early Islamic scholars al-Masudi and al-Biruni" (ibid.).
(32) S. Shaked, Dualism in Transformation: Varieties of Religion in Sasanian Iran (University of London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1994), p. 74, and citing G. Messina, Der Ursprung der magier und die zarathustrische religion (Rome 1930), pp. 88ff. Cf. J. R. Russell, "On Mysticism and Esotericism among the Zoroastrians," Jnl of the Society for Iranian Studies (1993) 26(1-2): 73-94, pp. 82-3, who implies an eschatological context for the verses in Yasna 48.
(33) J. Duchesne-Guillemin, The Western Response to Zoroaster (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), pp. 98, 100.
(34) Shaked, op. cit., p. 3, who says: "it may be suggested that some of the mystical fervor of Islam was derived from Zoroastrianism, although it is not easy to show this in any detail," because of the late priestly transmission of Pahlavi texts which imposed a selective bias on the materials. See also Shaked, From Zoroastrian Iran to Islam (London: Variorum, 1995).
(35) A. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), p. 6.
(36) J. R. Russell, "The Sage in Ancient Iran," p. 2 (photocopy sent to me by the author in 1989). See also Russell, "Sages and Scribes at the Courts of Ancient Iran," in J. Gammie and L. Perdue, eds., The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Eisenbrauns, 1990).
(37) J. R. Russell, New Materials towards a Life of the Prophet Zarathushtra (Bombay: Zoroastrian Studies, 1988), p. 12.
(38) Ibid., p. 11.
(40) Ibid., p. 13. This issue is capable of alternative formulations, in view of the differences between shamanistic communities. For instance, there appear to have been contrasts between North Asian shamanism and South American ritual practices.
(41) M. Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 66. See note 16 above. In the main however, the Boyce version of Zoroastrianism is associated with a defence of the traditional faith. Her presentation led to both acclaim and criticism for the element of apologism. The present writer was one of those who reacted to some of her emphases, though I have always been willing to credit the more venturesome aspects of her work. A strong criticism has been expressed that her "attempt to place him [Zarathushtra] on the Inner Asian steppes of Kazakhstan prior to the migrations onto the Iranian plateau was motivated by misguided ideological considerations." See W. W. Malandra, "Zoroaster ii. General Survey" (2009), Encyclopaedia Iranica online. Some other analysts think that the Kazakhstan theory is as valid as any of the competitors, none of which have been proven. See also Manfred Hutter, "Zoroaster iii. Zoroaster in the Avesta" (2009), Encyclopaedia Iranica online. The best suggestion for the homeland of Zarathushtra is here viewed in terms of a wide territory in Central Asia, from Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan. Furthermore, "the most probable conclusion... is that the most suitable date for Zarathushtra's life may be sought in the last centuries of the second millenium BC, perhaps in the middle of the millenium at the earliest." This assessment would encompass the Boyce paradigm in terms of both date and location.
(42) M. Aminrazavi, "Persia" (1037-1050) in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman, eds., History of Islamic Philosophy Part II (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 1043.
(43) S.H. Nasr, Sufi Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1972), p. 90.
(44) M. Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London: Routledge, 1979), p. 19. The prophet is said to have gone to a river to fetch water for the haoma ceremony. The vision is said to have occurred when he emerged from the water. Some scholars do not give any credence to the legends.
(45) J. D. Cursetji Pavry, The Zoroastrian Doctrine of a Future Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1926), pp. 28ff.
(46) Ibid., p. 31. See also pp. 33ff. on the daena as portrayed in the later Avesta and the Pahlavi literature. A fragment of the Hadokht Nask describes how the daena comes to greet the soul at the dawn of the fourth day after death, either in the form of a beautiful maiden or in the shape of a hideous hag. The Pahlavi book Arda Viraz Namag gives another description of the hag.
(47) M. Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 82 note 72.
(48) W. W. Malandra, An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 23.
(49) Shaked, Dualism in Transformation, p. 39.
(50) Boyce, op. cit., p. 76. See also H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (second edn, Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), p. 123, who repeats the version of C. Bartholomae: "inner essence, spiritual ego, individuality; often hardly translatable."
(51) Malandra, op. cit., p. 186.
(52) M. Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas Vol. 1 (London: Collins, 1979), p. 472.
(53) H. Corbin, Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi'ite Iran, trans. N. Pearson (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 28. See also ibid., p. 292 note 128.
(54) Ibid., p. 104.
(55) Ibid., p. 103.
(56) M. Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans. W. R. Trask (Princeton University Press, 1964), p. 398.
(59) J. R. Russell, New Materials, p. 12.
(60) J. R. Russell, "On Mysticism and Esotericism among the Zoroastrians," p. 77. Professor Russell significantly contradicts the conventional denial of esoteric doctrines within Zoroastrianism. He states: "From the earliest times Zoroastrians believed that special knowledge about the end of the cosmic battle between good and evil...might be acquired by spiritually advanced believers employing mystical techniques" (ibid., p. 74). He points out that "Zoroastrians are associated in New Persian literature, from its very beginnings to the present time, with mystical practices and religious intoxication" (ibid., p. 74 note 3). Professor Russell favours a version of Mithraism operating not "as a distinct religion in its own right, but rather as a secret society within the larger framewwork of Iranian religion, conferring rites of initiation" (ibid., p. 77 note 11). He appears not to draw a line between the use of psychotropic drugs, mantric recitations, and silent meditation (ibid., p. 74). The lastmentioned factor of silent meditation is correlated with the Avestan phrase tushna.maitish ("silently thinking"), and may have had profound significances of the kind I emphasised in Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995), Part 2. The present writer suggested that Zarathushtra's reform involved a repudiation of the drug-induced "spirit journey" which later appears to have resurged in orthodox clerical Zoroastrianism (cf. Russell, art. cit., p. 74 note 4).
(61) Russell, art. cit., p. 77 note 9.
(62) Malandra, An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion, p. 39.
(63) Ibid., pp. 39-40.
(64) Ibid., p. 40.
(65) Ibid., p. 20.
(66) Ibid., p. 41.
(67) Ibid., p. 43.
(69) The bold upper dateline of c.1700 B.C. appeared in Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1979). A more cautious dateline of c.1500 to c.1300 B.C. appeared in Boyce, "Persian Religion in the Achaemenid Age," p. 280. See note 31 above. Professor Boyce subsequently pruned the high dating to c. 1200 B.C., in deference to the general incredulity. The precise date of Zarathushtra remains uncertain.
(70) See M. Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism Vol. 1 (Leiden, 1975).
(71) See Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour (1992), pp. 44-5.
(72) Malandra, Intro. to Ancient Iranian Religion, p. 16. An argument for the traditional date can be found in G. Gnoli, Zoroaster in History (New York: Persian Heritage Foundation, Biennial Yarshater Lecture Series, 2000). See also Gnoli, "Agathias and the date of Zoroaster," Eran ud Aneran: Festschrift Boris I. Marshak (Venice, 2006). The difference in scholarly opinion may be further sampled in A. Shahpur Shahbazi, "Recent speculations on the 'traditional date of Zoroaster', " Studia Iranica (2002) 31 (1): 7-45. Many specialist scholars appear to have rejected the traditional date. Professor Gnoli formerly emphasised an earlier date in his impressive work Zoroaster's Time and Homeland (Naples, 1980), which related to a suggested homeland in Sistan a few centuries prior to the traditional date.
(73) Eliade, A Hist. of Religious Ideas Vol. 1, p. 304.
(74) Boyce, Zoroastrians, p. 18.
(75) Malandra, op. cit., pp. 17, 21.
(76) Ibid., p. 17.
(77) Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, pp. 31, 46 note 29. See also J. R. Russell, New Materials (1988), pp. 8-9; idem, "A Wandering Herder of Camels," Annual of Armenian Linguistics (1987) 8: 5-15. See also R. Schmitt, "Zoroaster i. The Name" (2002), Encyclopaedia Iranica online.
(78) Russell, New Materials, p. 17. See also H. P. Schmidt, Zarathushtra's Religion and his Pastoral Imagery (Leiden, 1975).
(79) Quotations from W. W. Malandra, "Zoroaster ii. General Survey" (2009), Encyclopaedia Iranica online. Malandra is here contesting the interpretation in J. Kellens and E. Pirart, Les textes vieil-avestiques (3 vols, Wiesbaden, 1988-91). The same scholar also emphasises that all arguments for the homeland are inconclusive.
(80) Malandra, An Intro. to Ancient Iranian Religion, p. 21.
(81) Ibid., pp. 21-2.
(82) See S. Insler, The Gathas of Zarathushtra (Leiden, 1975).
(83) For the ginseng theory, see G. L. Windfuhr, "Haoma/Soma: The Plant" (699-726) in Papers in Honour of Professor Mary Boyce (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1985). The case for ginseng as the original haoma is here argued, and in a manner which implies the compatibility of Zarathushtra with this consumption. "Haoma/soma thus appears to inspire and to further and stimulate asha, i.e., orderly and true thoughts, words, and deeds, as opposed to the fury and wrath induced by the mada" (ibid., p. 704). Professor Windfuhr employs the explanation of Professor Boyce for Yasna 48.10: "When will you smite down the urine of this intoxication ?" The contention is that this verse of the Gathas suggest a different substance to haoma. However, other analysts have concluded that the mada or intoxication is a reference to haoma. For an objection to the ginseng theory in relation to Zarathushtra, see Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One (1995), pp. 383 ff.
(84) See H. Humbach, Die Gathas des Zarathushtra (2 vols, Heidelberg, 1959); idem, The Gathas of Zarathushtra and the Other Old Avestan Texts (2 vols, Heidelberg, 1991).
(85) Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 64, and citing J. Kellens and E. Pirart, Les textes vieil-avestiques Vol. 1 (Wiesbaden, 1988). See also J. Kellens, Zoroastre et l'Avesta ancien (Paris, 1991).
(86) See W. B. Henning, Zoroaster, Politician or Witch-Doctor ? (Oxford University Press, 1951). See also Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, pp. 276-8.
(87) Shaked, Dualism in Transformation, p. 27 note 1.
(91) Ibid., p. 7.
(92) Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 38.
(93) Malandra, Intro. to Ancient Iranian Religion, p. 182.
(94) J. R. Russell, "On Mysticism and Esotericism among the Zoroastrians," p. 89. See also S. Shaked, trans., The Wisdom of the Sassanian sages - Denkard VI (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1979), p. xvii, who says that much of the material contained in Book VI of the Denkard is based on oral traditions of the Sassanian era, "while some of it seems to go back even further in antiquity." Compiled in the ninth century A.D., Book VI is introduced as a specimen of "what has been done and held by the orthodox," this contingent being defined in terms of "the early sages." While a number of sayings are ascribed to specific sages, others are anonymous. Book VI is "addressed to an audience on a higher intellectual level" than the fairly large group of extant andarz (gnomic) texts. Book VI "contains many sayings of a sophisticated nature, based on allusions which contain literary associations or puns, sometimes hard for us to understand," while also present are "a small number of quite obscure hints which seem to possess some esoteric significance." The attention given to wisdom (khrad; Avestan: khratu) can gain different interpretations. Book VI carries the admonition for every man to gain knowledge of basic factors about himself. This aspect of wisdom enjoined the age of fifteen as the time for such self-evaluation to begin. "Did I come from the other world or did I originate in this world ? Do I belong to Ohrmazd or to Ahriman ?" (ibid., p. xxv). The current critical question is: did this train of thought merely lead, in many cases, to a doctrinaire evaluation which never reached beyond the formal aspect of religion ? Mere belief in a divine affiliation is not necessarily transformative. The important distinction between menog and getig, between the spiritual and material modes of existence, might easily have become blurred by the "this worldly" orientation of orthodox sages who assumed they possessed full wisdom. The dogmatic position of Kirder was a product of priestly conservatism and wisdom lore.
(95) J. H. Moulton, Early Zoroastrianism (1913), p. 147.
(96) Boyce, Zoroastrians (1979), p. 18.
(97) Ibid., p. 19.
(98) Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour (1992), p. 95.
(99) Ibid., p. 65.
(100) Malandra, Intro. to Ancient Iranian Religion, p. 187, who says that in many contexts the word manthra is best translated as "(magical) spell."
(101) Ibid., p. 37, and citing the contributions of S. Insler and H. P. Schmidt. "One must entertain the possibility that for Zarathushtra the theme of the 'Cow's Lament' was to be understood on a spiritual as well as this more mundane level" (ibid.).
(102) Ibid., pp. 37-8. See also Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, pp. 259ff., and citing G.G. Cameron, "Zoroaster the Herdsman," Indo-Iranian Journal (1968) 10: 261ff.
(103) Eliade, A Hist. of Religious Ideas Vol. 1, p. 312.
(104) Malandra, op. cit., p. 23.
(105) Ibid., p. 22.
(106) Eliade, op. cit., p. 314.
(107) Ibid., p. 316.
(108) Ibid., pp. 314-5.
(109) Ibid., p. 315.
(110) Ibid., p. 324.
(111) Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 31. See also Boyce, "Avestan People" (1987), Encyclopaedia Iranica online, and stating: "The Gathas appear indeed to mirror ancient Iranian society still at this pastoral stage, the community of 'cattle and men' (pasu vira, Yasna 31.15, 45.9), experiencing violent changes but not yet driven to the 'swarming' represented by the great migrations from the steppes southwards into Iran, which led, it seems, to the evolution of social classes." A late passage of the Avesta refers to a fourth social class, in which the huiti is recognised, meaning the craftsman or artisan. The term huiti "presumably included not only smiths, but also potters, weavers, and the like, all now becoming specialised workers" (ibid.).
(112) In Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, section 2.11 (pp. 288ff.), I described aspects of the Boyce theory under the heading of "The Khwarezm Theory," as the region of Khwarezm was mentioned in her earlier works. Cf. ibid., p. 259, referring to the South Russian steppes. In the 1979 book of Mary Boyce entitled Zoroastrians, the steppes were not clearly specified as the homeland, and the first volume of her magnum opus A History of Zoroastrianism had followed Professors E. Benveniste and I. Gershevitch in proposing the importance of Khwarezm. Cf. I. Gershevitch, "Approaches to Zoroaster's Gathas," Iran (1995) 33:1-29. Unlike Boyce, Professor Ilya Gershevitch inclined to the traditional date of Zarathushtra, following the precedent of W. B. Henning. Gershevitch suggested Sogdia, while Henning favoured Khwarezm (Chorasmia) as the location for Zarathushtra. See notes 1 and 86 above.
(113) Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour (1992), p. 37.
(114) Ibid., p. 58.
(115) Ibid., p. 62.
(118) Ibid., p. 65.
(120) Ibid., p. 65.
(121) Ibid., pp. 65-6.
(122) Ibid., p. 66.
(123) Ibid., p. 67.
(124) Ibid., p. 68.
(125) Ibid., p. 74.
(127) Ibid., p. 76.
(128) In Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, p. 247, I referred to the theme of Professor H.S. Nyberg "that the Chinvat Bridge originally related to a mystical experience, one which aligns with shamanic ideas of the "Cosmic Tree" rather than the fundamentalist "heaven and hell" preferred by officiating priests." In a similar vein to Nyberg, the comparativist Mircea Eliade observed that the Bridge was not only the passage for the dead but also "the road of ecstatics," and here invoking the Pahlavi work Arda Viraz Namag for the legendary instance of Arda Viraz who "crosses the Chinvat Bridge in the course of his mystical journey" (Eliade, Shamanism, Princeton University Press, 1964, p. 398).
(129) Eliade, A Hist. of Religious Ideas Vol.1, pp. 330-1.
(130) Boyce, op. cit., p. 75.
(131) Ibid., p. 67. See also G. Kreyenbroek, Sraosa in the Zoroastrian Tradition (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1985).
(132) Boyce, op. cit., p. 76.
(134) Ibid., p. 84.
(135) Ibid., p. 97.
(136) Ibid., p. 87.
(137) Ibid., p. 88, and citing J. Narten, Der Yasna Haptanhaiti (Wiesbaden, 1986). Professor Boyce says that the attribution "was suggested, cautiously but with an admirable marshalling of the evidence" by Narten (ibid., p. 98 note 17). Cf. P. O. Skjaervo, "The State of Old Avestan Scholarship," Jnl of the American Oriental Society (1997) 117:103-7.
(138) Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1979), p. 37.
(139) Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 105.
(140) J. R. Russell, New Materials towards a Life of the Prophet Zarathushtra (1988), p. 12.
(141) Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 105.
(142) Boyce, Zoroastrians, p. 33.
(143) Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 142.
(145) See Boyce, Zoroastrians, p. 138, citing the anecdote in which Khusrau Anushirvan's lavish celebration of the sixth gahambar is contrasted with the behaviour of a poor man who deprived himself, the latter gaining more merit.
(146) Ibid., p. 208, and also informing that the Parsi Panchayat of Bombay, in the eighteen century, tried to curb extravagance in the celebration of gahambars and ceremonies for the dead, a struggle which proved largely unavailing because of the new wealth gained by Zoroastrians in India (ibid., p. 193). The Panchayat amounted to the traditional council of elders, and prominently featured laymen, though such roles were generally hereditary. The Panchayat were influenced by priestly protocol in their attitude of rivalry with Muslims and Hindus. who were still regarded as aliens during the first half of the nineteenth century. The gahambars were employed as insignia of Zoroastrian identity, a foil to the visiting of Hindu shrines and also to intermarriage with Hindus. Such considerations apart, it has been a matter of disagreement that some writers do not distinguish between the "feast" attributed to Zarathushtra and the much later potlach displays of opulent kings. If any redistributive feast was favoured by the prophet, then surely the format was rather different to the celebration of Khusrau I. In the unrevised page 298 of Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One (1995), the present writer ventured a criticism of both commercial Christmas and the excesses associated with Zoroastrian feasts. In the subsequent revised page, made in the interests of avoiding any cause of offence, I observed that "the Zoroastrian feasts did have merits such as providing occasions for feeding the poor, a redistribution that would doubtless have appealed to the prophet; the feasts were extended over the centuries, and are only known in detail from the Sassanian era."
(147) Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 107.
(148) Ibid., p. 115.
(151) See, e.g., M. Tosi, S. Malik Shahmirzadi, and M. A. Joyenda, "The Bronze Age in Iran and Afghanistan" (191-223) in A. H. Dani and V. M. Masson, eds., History of Civilizations of Central Asia Vol. 1 (Paris: Unesco, 1992), p. 200, stating: "After the year 2200, that is, at the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age, the urban system begins to deteriorate and there is a radical and rapid decline of the large centres in all the enclaves of Central Asia." That assessment includes Mundigak and Shahr-i Sokhta, where the process of urbanisation was completed between 2600 and 2500 B. C. (ibid., p. 199).
(152) G. Gropp, "Thus Spake Zarathushtra ?" Hali (London, 1994), 74: 96-100, who further writes of Sarianidi's theory that his "arguments that the Dashli culture embraced Zoroastrianism appear extremely weak," a conclusion meaning his "interpretation of several buildings as the oldest fire temples must therefore be called into question" (art. cit., p.116 note 2). Dr. Gropp further informs that French archaeologists had contributed the dateline of 2100-1700 B.C. for Dashli. See also Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 50 note 100.
(153) Boyce, op. cit., p. 125.
(154) See A. Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East Vol. 2 (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 683, stating that the "wisest men" mentioned by Strabo "were almost certainly the magi, who were associated with divine worship and were the guardians of Persian lore." See also A. Kuhrt and H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg, eds., Achaemenid History (8 vols, Leiden, 1987-1994).
(155) W. W. Malandra, An Intro. to Ancient Iranian Religion, p. 25.
(156) Ibid., p. 26.
(157) Ibid., p. 25. Cf. A. D. H. Bivar, "Mithra and Mesopotamia" (275-89) in J. R. Hinnells, ed., Mithraic Studies Vol. 2 (Manchester University Press, 1975), pp. 286-7, who insinuates that an uncontaminated Zoroastrian tradition of Khurasan was in conflict with a corrupted Median priesthood, and describing the magi in terms of an aberrant devotion to a deity of the underworld, whether designated as Nergal, Zurvan, or Ahriman. This theory tends to employ the traditional chronology for Zarathushtra, thus implying that the prophet's reform was specifically aimed at cults like the magian (here associated with human sacrifice). If Zarathushtra was actually much earlier in time, then it is deducible that the East Iranian traditions of Zoroastrianism were not necessarily uncontaminated at the period these converged with the Median priesthood (associated with the magi). Nobody need think that the pre-Zoroastrian practices of the magi were uncontaminated by superstitions and decadent practices, whether or not human sacrifice was involved. The Bivar theory as a whole is concerned to stress that Mithraism amounted to a blend of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian elements with the Babylonian cult of Nergal, thus contesting the interpretation of Franz Cumont that Mithraism was a Westernised form of Zoroastrianism. See also the update in Roger Beck, "Mithraism" (2002), Encyclopaedia Iranica online. For the pioneering Cumont, Mithraism in the West was Romanised Mazdaism, still essentially a Persian religion, despite the intervening adaptations.
(158) E.g., G. Widengren, Les religions de l'Iran (Paris: Payot, 1968), pp. 314ff.; M. Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism Vol. 2 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1982), pp. 232ff.
(159) Y. Stoyanov, The Hidden Tradition in Europe (London: Arkana, 1994), p. 256 note 63, citing S. Shaked "The Myth of Zurvan: Cosmogony and Eschatology," in I. Gruenwald, S. Shaked, and G. Stroumsa, eds., Messiah and Christos: Studies in the Jewish Origins of Christianity (Tubingen, 1992), pp. 232-3.
(160) Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 142, and who also says that "orthodox Zoroastrians continued to denounce the heresy" (Cambridge History of Judaism Vol. 1, p. 307). See also R.C. Zaehner, Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955).
(161) S. Shaked, "Iranian Influence on Judaism," (308-325) in The Cambridge History of Judaism Vol. 1, p. 311.
(163) Ibid., pp. 311-12.
(164) Ibid., p. 312.
(165) See Shaked, "Esoteric Trends in Zoroastrianism," Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities (1970) 3:175-221. This article generated some disagreements. Sir Harold Bailey criticised the theory involved on the grounds that it tried to discover some mysticism in Zoroastrian orthodox tradition where Jean de Menasce had found none. Professor J .R. Russell countered that accusation with the comment: "This criticism appears to have been based on a misunderstanding. Shaked never meant, in fact, to suggest that the Zoroastrians promulgated mystical doctrines or practices, only that they restricted access to religious learning which might be misused by the ignorant, by foreign enemies of the Iranian faith, or by heretics within." (Russell, "On Mysticism and Esotericism among the Zoroastrians," p, 73 note 2, and citing Bailey, Zoroastrian Problems in the Ninth Century Books, second edn Oxford 1971, p. xxix).
(166) Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 116.
(169) Ibid., p. 142.
(170) H. C. Puech, Le Manicheisme (Paris, 1949); G. Widengren, "Manichaeism and Its Iranian Background," (965-90) in The Cambridge History of Iran Vol. 3 Pt 2 (Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 965-6, 970, 971-2; A. Henrichs, "Mani and the Babylonian Baptists: A Historical Confrontation," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology (1973) 77:23-59; idem, "The Cologne Mani Codex Reconsidered," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology (1979) 83: 339-67; K. Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1984), pp. 326ff; G. Gnoli, De Zoroastre a Mani (Paris: Klincksieck, 1985); S. N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China: A Historical Survey (Manchester University Press, 1985); L. Koenen and C. Romer, eds., Der Kolner Mani Kodex (Opladen, 1988); J. C. Reeves, Jewish Lore in Manichaean Cosmogony: Studies in the Book of Giants Traditions (Hebrew Union College Press, 1992); Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One (1995), pp. 350ff.; G. Mikkelsen, ed., Bibliographica Manichaica (Turnhout: Brepols, 1997); R. E. Emmerick et al, Studia Manichaica:IV (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2000); M. J. Vermes, trans., Acta Archelai (Turnhout: Brepols, 2001); A. Van Tongerloo and L. Cirillo, eds., New Perspectives in Manichaean Studies (Brepols, 2005); S. N. C. Lieu et al, Dictionary of Manichaean Texts (3 vols, Corpus Fontium Manichaeorum - Series Subsidia, Brepols, 1999-2006); W. Sundermann, "Mani" (2009), Encyclopaedia Iranica online; idem, "Manicheism i. General Survey" (2009), Encyclopaedia Iranica online.
(171) Shaked, Dualism in Transformation (1994), pp. 2, 115.
(172) Ibid., p. 75.
(173) Ibid., p. 78.
(174) Ibid., p. 79
(175) Ibid., p. 78.
(176) Ibid., p. 58.
(177) Ibid., p. 59.
(178) Ibid. The capital G for Gnostic has been inserted in the quotation by the present writer in order to avoid confusions, and not merely because of complexities in my own presentation.
(179) Ibid., pp. 58, 56-7.
(180) Ibid., p. 46.
(182) Ibid., p. 45.
(185) See J. R. Russell, "The Sage in Ancient Iran," stating that "Like most of the monarchs depicted in the New Persian epic Shah-nameh of Firdausi, Vishtaspa seems to have been vain, foolish, and vacillating in his adherence to the new dispensation" (page 5 photocopy sent to me in 1989, and see note 36 above).
(186) See P. Gignoux, "Essai sur le chamanisme dans l'Iran ancien," Journal Asiatique (1979) 41-79; idem, Les Quatre Inscriptions du mage Kirdir (Paris: Studia Iranica, 1991). See also Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. 1, p. 853 note 148.
(187) Shaked, Dualism in Transformation, p. 50.
(188) For a discussion of this controversial custom, see Shaked, op. cit., pp. 119 ff. It was favoured by royalty, and was evidently endorsed by the priesthood. The practice was "perhaps not followed as frequently as the clergy would have liked" (ibid., p. 122). See also G. J. Van Gelder, "Incest and Inbreeding" (2004), Encyclopaedia Iranica online, and observing that "the alleged practices of the Zoroastrians are a recurrent motif in Muslim texts." The Arabs "frequently taunt Persians with this custom [next-of-kin unions], even though it is likely that even in Sassanian times it was never widely practised, and there is no clear proof that it survived in Islamic times" (ibid.). Further, "reports on sectarians who are accused of propagating and practicing sexually deviant customs, among them marriages that are incestuous by Islamic standards, should also be treated with caution" (ibid). Of interest here is the detail that Behafarid of Khurasan "who led an uprising near Nishapur around 129/747... and who acted as a kind of Neo-Zoroastrian prophet, spoke out against the practice [of next-of-kin unions]" (ibid.).
(189) Shaked, Dualism in Transformation, p. 126.
(190) Ibid., p. 128.
(192) Ibid., p. 130.
(193) M. Shaki, "The Cosmogonical and Cosmological Teachings of Mazdak (527-543) in Papers in Honour of Professor Mary Boyce (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1985).
(194) Shaked, op. cit., p. 3, who, however, seems to be referring to orthodox Zoroastrianism.
(195) Ibid., p. 79, and commenting: "One may think, for example, of Abu Yazid al-Bistami, al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi, and many others."
(196) Ibid., p. 70.
(197) J. J. Saunders, A History of Medieval Islam (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), p. 111.
(198) M. Shaki, "The Social Doctrine of Mazdak in the light of Middle Persian evidence," Archiv Orientalni (1978) 46: 289-306, p. 300.
(199) Ibid., p. 301.
(200) Cf. P. Crone, "Kavad's heresy and Mazdak's revolt," Iran (1991) 29: 21-42.
(201) Shaki, "The Social Doctrine of Mazdak," pp. 294-5.
(202) See A. Christensen, L'Iran Sous Les Sassanides (second edn, Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1944), 316ff.; idem, Le regne du roi Kawadh I et le communisme mazdakite (Copenhagen, 1925); O. Klima, Mazdak (Prague 1957; repr. New York: Arno Press, 1979); idem, Beitrage zur Geshchichte des Mazdakismus (Prague: Institute der Tschechoslovak, 1977); E. Yarshater, "Mazdakism" (991-1024) in The Cambridge History of Iran Vol. 3 Pt 2 (1983).
(203) M. Guidi - M. Morony, "Mazdak" (949-52) in The Encyclopaedia of Islam Vol. 6 (second edn, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1991). Cf. J. Duchesne-Guillemin, "Zoroastrian Religion" (866-908) in The Cambridge History of Iran Vol. 3 Pt 2, pp. 892-3, who infers that Mazdak was partly inspired by the doctrines of Mani.
(204) Yarshater, art. cit., pp. 998ff.
(205) Shaki, "The Cosmogonical and Cosmological Teachings of Mazdak," p. 542.
(206) Shaki, "The Social Doctrine of Mazdak," pp. 305-6.
(207) Guidi-Morony, art.cit.; Yarshater,"Mazdakism," pp. 1018-20.
(208) S. Petrement, A Separate God: The Christian Origins of Gnosticism, trans. C. Harrison (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1991), p. 348.
(209) Yarshater, art.cit., pp.1012-13.
(210) Ibid., pp. 1020ff.
(211) Shaked, Dualism in Transformation, pp. 78, 106.
(212) Ibid., p. 105; D. K. Motlagh, "Bozorgmehr-e Boktagari," Encyclopaedia Iranica Vol. 4, fasc. 4 (1989), pp. 427-9, favouring the theory that the legendary vizier was a secretary of Khusrau I named Borzmehr, a man later executed at the order of Khusrau's son and successor Hormuzd IV.
(213) Shaked, op. cit., pp. 113-14, citing the account of Agathias.
(214) Ibid., p. 119, and citing Widengren "Leitende Ideen und Quellen der iranischen Apokalyptik" (77-162) in D. Hellholm, ed., Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the Near East (Tubingen, 1983), pp. 97ff. Cf. Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One (1995), pp. 370-1. Cf. Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, pp. 133-4, who affirms that the zand was written down in Middle Persian during the later Sassanian period, apparently from the fourth century onward. Furthermore, "zands in other Middle Iranian languages were evidently drawn on, especially for the glossses and commentaries."
(215) Shaked, op. cit., and stating: "This is the main criticism that could be made of Yarshater's otherwise sober and balanced exposition of Mazdakism."
(216) Yarshater, "Mazdakism," pp. 1001ff., 1018.
(217) F. Daftary, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines (Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 238, and reporting the views of Abu Hatim al-Razi, who was moved to apply a critique to the Kitab al-Mahsul of the dai Muhammad al-Nasafi, a work that was regarded as unorthodox by the Fatimids and which did not survive. These early Ismaili authors formulated eras of prophecy in human history, and assigned a role in this scheme to Zarathushtra.
(218) I. M. Lapidus. A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 79. Abu Muslim, originally a Persian slave, was an Abbasid governor who was treacherously killed by the Caliph Al-Mansur in 754 because of his growing power. Despite his subsequent profile as a hero of revolt, in 749 Abu Muslim had eliminated the rebellion of Bihafarid, a peasant leader in Khurasan whose following subscribed to "a combination of Muslim ideas and the ancient worship of Ahura Mazda" (ibid., p. 78). Ironically, it was the Zoroastrian priests who requested Abu Muslim to put down this movement, an indication of how much these clerics feared the threat of the lower classes producing a rival doctrine. See also G.H. Yusofi, "Behafarid," Encyclopaedia Iranica Vol. 4, fasc. 1 (1989), pp. 88-90. Bihafarid is sometimes described as a reformer.
(219) W. Madelung, "Khurramiyya," Encyclopaedia of Islam Vol. 5 (1979), fascicules 79-80, p. 64. Lapidus, op. cit., p. 79, says that most of Al-Muqanna's support came from peasant villages. J. J. Saunders, A Hist. of Medieval Islam (1965), p. 113, says that Al-Muqanna "revived the doctrines of Mazdak." See also C. E. Bosworth, "Abbasid Caliphate" (1982), Encyclopaedia Iranica online, stating that Al-Muqanna attracted "many elements of discontent, including the Abu Moslemiya, believers in metempsychosis, and above all, Mazdakite sympathisers."
(220) Madelung, art. cit., pp. 63, 65.
(221) G.H. Yusofi, "Babak Korrami," Encyclopaedia Iranica Vol. 3 (1989), pp. 299-306. Cf. Saunders, op. cit., p. 113, who states that Babak terrorised the countryside for twenty years. More recently, some scholars have expressed hesitation in making too strong a judgment of such millenarian sects on the basis of biased and inadequate sources. Cf. E. L. Daniel, The Political and Social History of Khurasan under Abbasid rule 747-820 (Chicago: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1979), pp. 125ff., on the ghulat sects. See also C. E. Bosworth, "Abbasid Caliphate" (linked above in note 219), who states that the constituent elements of these Khurrami sectaries "seem to have been similar to those of earlier movements, with Mazdakite adherents and a certain emphasis on the part of women in activities clearly identifiable; socially, it [the rebellion of Babak] seems to have set peasants and small landowners against the owners of large estates."
(222) G. Widengren, "Babakiyah and the Mithraic Mysteries" (675-95) in U. Bianchi, ed., Mysteria Mithrae (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1979), p. 677. Widengren observes that the Babakiyya believed in metempsychosis, and a commentator has added "as do Khshnumist Zoroastrians, some Sufi Muslims, and some Jewish Kabbalists, though the orthodox of all three faiths rejects such a doctrine" (J. R. Russell, "On Mysticism and Esotericism among the Zoroastrians," p. 79 note 16).
(223) Widengren, art. cit., p. 676. Some other scholars believe the comparison to be a reasonable case for the survival of ancient Iranian Mithraic rites. However, ultimate questions about the origins of Mithraism have not been unanimously resolved. Some scholars have argued for Iranian origins, while others have rejected or extensively modified that viewpoint. A basic point of reference is J.R. Hinnells, ed., Mithraic Studies (2 vols, Manchester University Press, 1975). See also A. D. H. Bivar, "Mithraic Images of Bactria: Are they related to Roman Mithraism?" (741-60) in Bianchi, ed., Mysteria Mithrae, who argues that Mithraic origins are far older than the Roman empire, and suggesting that Mithraism was the religion of the early Medes, a theory in convergence with the assessment of Widengren. Cf. D. Ulansey, The Origin of the Mithraic Mysteries (Oxford University Press, 1989), who does not favour Iranian origin theories. Cf. J. R. Russell, "On the Armeno-Iranian Roots of Mithraism," a paper read at the Mithraic Subsection of the International Congress of Religious Studies held at Rome in September 1990. This refers to Mithra as an important divinity of Arsacid Armenia, and mentions beliefs and traditions having an obvious affinity with Mithraism as known in the Roman West, traditions which "are for the most part the result of the fusion of Iranian and Armenian beliefs" (ibid., p. 1). See also Russell, Zoroastrianism in Armenia (Harvard University Press, 1987); idem, Armenian and Iranian Studies (Harvard University Press, 2004).
(224) Widengren, art. cit., p. 677. See also G. H. Sadighi, Les Mouvements Religieux Iranians (Paris: Les Presses Modernes, 1938), pp. 229-80.
(225) Madelung, art. cit., p. 65. See also Madelung, Religious Trends in Early Islamic Iran (New York: Bibliotheca Persica, 1988), chapter one.
(226) M. Moosa, Extremist Shi'ites: The Ghulat Sects (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1988).
(227) Nevertheless, brutal violence did manifest in the Qarmati extremism that competed with the Abbasid power. The Qarmatis (Qaramita) of Bahrain were notorious for harassing pilgrim routes in Arabia, and further tarnished their record when they ended peaceful relations with the Abbasids in 923 and pillaged Basra. Shortly after, they attacked the pilgrims returning from Mecca, killing some people and taking many prisoners. That was the beginning of a decade of "devastating raids into Iraq, interpsersed with attacks on the pilgrim caravans, which greatly enriched the treasury of the Qarmati state" (Daftary, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, 1990, p. 161). In 930 the Qarmati leader Abu Tahir Sulayman attacked Mecca, where "for several days the Qarmatis massacred the pilgrims and the inhabitants of Mecca" (ibid., p. 162), while committing many acts of desecration in sacred places and even carrying away the Black Stone of the Ka'ba to their new capital of al-Ahsa. In 931 the disreputable Abu Tahir turned over rule to a young Persian from Isfahan whom he believed to be the mahdi (saviour). The Isfahani is reported to have been a Zoroastrian, and claimed descent from the Persian kings and "manifested anti-Arab and antinomian sentiments" (ibid., p. 163). When he started to execute leading Qarmatis of Bahrain, Abu Tahir declared him to be an imposter and had him killed. A few years later, the Abbasid Caliph Al-Radi executed the chief priest of the Zoroastrians, one Isfandiyar ibn Adharbad, for his alleged complicity with Abu Tahir (ibid.). Such dramatic events occurred after the establishment of an independent Qarmati state in Bahrain which gained powerful martial support, a state which survived until 1077/78. The degree to which the Qarmatis can be aligned with the earlier ghulat sects has been questioned, especially as their recruits included many Bedouin tribesmen. Sometimes known as radical Batinis, the Qarmatis are often described as an offshoot of the Ismailis. Cf. M. J. De Goeje, Memoire sur les Carmathes du Bahrain et les Fatimides (Leiden 1886), which is still a relevant work. Early missionary activity in the ninth century contrasted with the subsequent martial enlistments, though the Qarmatis were armed by 891. Their first leader was Hamdun Qarmat, active in the Kufa region of Iraq during the 870's. An influential commentator was Ibn Rizam, writing in the early tenth century, though he was an anti-Ismaili author who cannot be trusted in every detail; he described village colonies near Kufa, and alleged that Hamdun Qarmat ordered his missionaries to make an arrangement one night for the women to mix indiscriminately with the men. Such stories are now considered to be a falsification. However, there is more substance in the accusation that Qarmatis rejected the law and rites of Islam. Eleventh century travellers reported an absence of mosques and prayers in Bahrain. Yet visitors evidently admired the organisation of the Qarmati state, which displayed egalitarian features of concern for the community members. The Ismaili writer Nasir-i-Khusrau visited al-Ahsa in 1051 and reported that there was only one mosque in the city, whose inhabitants never drank wine, even though the city had 20,000 men capable of bearing arms and had 30,000 negro slaves for agricultural work. See further W. Madelung, "Fatimiden und Bahrainqarmaten," Der Islam (1959) 34: 34-88; idem, "Karmati" (660-665) in Encyclopaedia of Islam Vol. 4 (new edn); Daftary, op. cit., pp. 116ff.; Yarshater, "Mazdakism," pp. 1023-4.
(228) Yarshater, art. cit.
(229) Daftary, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, p. 368.
(230) For partial translations, see A. K. Kazi and J. G. Flynn, trans., Muslim Sects and Divisions (London 1984); D. Gimaret and G. Monnot, trans., Livre des religions et des sectes (Paris 1986).
(231) W. Sundermann, "Cosmogony and Cosmology in the Mazdakite Religion," Encyclopaedia Iranica Vol. 6, fasc.3 (Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 1993), pp. 315-17. See also Sundermann, "Cosmogony and Cosmology iv. In the Mazdakite Religion," Encyclopaedia Iranica online.
(232) M. Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas Vol. 2, trans. W. R. Trask (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 368ff.
(233) Ibid., p. 371, mentioning these gnoses as an integral part of Zoroastrianism, the Mysteries, Judaism, and Christianity. Although I do basically agree with this distinction, I do so from a different standpoint; I do not believe that Eliade gave a satisfactory account of either the gnoses or Gnosticism.
(234) Ibid., p. 374.
(235) S. H. Nasr, Sufi Essays (London: George allen & Unwin, 1972), p. 120. Professor Nasr here states that "elements of Zoroastrianism were integrated into certain perspectives of Islamic intellectual life," though Islam influenced some of the later Zoroastrian writings. Zoroastrianism contributed to the poetic vocabulary of Sufi poets like Hafiz, and Zoroastrian angelology and cosmology are here credited as being revived by Suhrawardi in his ishraqi philosophy (ibid., pp. 120-1).
(236) Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas Vol. 3, trans. A. Hiltebeitel (University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 320.
(237) P. K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (tenth edn, London: Macmillan, 1970), pp. 155ff., 209ff.; R. N. Frye, The Heritage of Central Asia (1996), pp. 209ff., 208. See also Frye, trans., The History of Bukhara by Narshakhi (Cambridge, Mass.: Mediaeval Academy, 1954).
(238) Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour (1992), p. 155.
(239) Henry Corbin, "Azar Kayvan," Encyclopaedia Iranica Vol. 3 fasc. 2 (1987). pp. 183ff.; Shepherd, From Oppression to Freedom: A Study of the Kaivani Gnostics (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988), Part Two. See also my web item Suhrawardi's Philosophy of Illumination (2008).
(240) Boyce, op. cit., chapter eight; idem, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1979), chapters ten, eleven, and twelve; idem, A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism (Oxford University Press, 1977).
(241) See further E. Kulke, The Parsees in India: A Minority as Agent of Social Change (Munich: Weltforum Verlag, 1974).
(242) M. Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent: Socioreligious Thought in Qajar Iran (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1982), p. 187.
(243) Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, p. 200.
(244) An Irani Zoroastrian deeply influenced by the Parsi progressivism and learning was Khaikhusrau Shahrokh, who became the first official Zoroastrian deputy in Iran, serving at many sessions of the new national parliament after 1909. He studied in Bombay during his youth. See S. Shahrokh and R. Writer, trans.,The Memoirs of Kheikhosrow Shahrokh (Lampeter, Dyfed: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995).
(245) Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent, p. 191.
(246) Boyce, Zoroastrians, p. 222.
(247) Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 183.
(248) Ibid. See also B. N. Dhabhar, trans., The Persian Rivayats of Hormazyar Framarz and others (Bombay 1932).
(249) W. W. Malandra, An Intro. to Ancient Iranian Religion, p. 162, who says that like Rabbinical Judaism, Zoroastrianism shows "an ever-increasing concern for such matters [rules of purity and pollution], to the point of obsession in late Sasanid times."
(250) Ibid., and remarking on the tendency in the Yashts towards a preoccupation with spells and demonology. See also C. R. Pangborn, "Parsi Zoroastrian Myth and Ritual: Some Problems of their Relevance for Death and Dying" (415-30) in T. N. Madan, ed., Religion in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 417, who states that the Gathas "yield no clues that would make him [Zarathushtra] accountable for his later followers' notions about innumerable ways of cultically corrupting the physical bases of life." The Vendidad offers many prescriptions in the name of Zarathushtra, prescriptions "which in all probability were more congruent with aboriginal beliefs and cultic practices swept away in his reform and then reintroduced by the Median Magi" (ibid.). A belief of the priests was that when the corpse was taken to the dakhma (tower of silence), "the sun and the supplementary action of the vultures helped the soul and its spiritual body, the Karp, to come out from the physical body" (ibid., p. 423). By modern times, "only the exceptional priest" knew the Avestan and Pahlavi languages well enough to translate what he had learned to recite by rote (ibid.).
(251) Malandra, op. cit., p. 163.
(252) Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 136, referring to what was apparently an innovation of the late Sassanian era. A passage of the Vendidad influenced a new belief that some measure was needed to remove the pollution of night from all believers before commencing activities of the new day. The remedy enjoined was to rub cattle urine (commonly used as a disinfectant) over the exposed parts of the body, before applying water and then saying the first of the five daily prayers.
(253) Malandra, op. cit., pp. 164, 173-4.
(254) Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1979), p. 45.
(255) Ibid., p. 180.
(256) Ibid., pp. 208, 218.
(257) See R. Writer, Contemporary Zoroastrians: an unstructured nation (University Press of America, 1994).
(258) Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1979), p. 226, giving a total figure of 129,000 Zoroastrians worldwide, five thousand of these being in Pakistan, and nearly ten thousand in Western countries.
(259) See Pangborn, art. cit., p. 427, referring to a steady decline in numbers, especially in Bombay, "where the death rate is approximately 50 per cent higher than the birth rate" (ibid.). The 1981 census figure for Indian Parsis was 72,000, contrasting with an estimated 110,000 in 1951. See also J. S. Palsetia, "Parsi Communities ii. In Calcutta" (2006), Encyclopaedia Iranica online. This entry states that the 2001 Indian census showed 69,600 Parsis.
(260) Pangborn, art. cit., p. 427, and adding that orthodox traditionalism is "represented principally but by no means exclusively by the priesthood" (ibid., p. 428). The priestly establishment appears to exercise an "at least nominal authority over the Parsi community" (ibid.).
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